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Just the term juvenile delinquency has changed in its characteristics so often over the years. There are also some ways in which it hasnt changed. Whenever a minor commits a crime it is considered juvenile delinquency and normally results in being submitted into our juvenile detention systems for punishment. Discipline is an important part of having a society that is civilized so it is fair to expect even a youthful offender to have to 'do their time' for their crime. A teen can go to a juvenile detention center for a few weeks or months and a surprisingly large amount of them can actually learn from their mistakes. They can begin to understand more distinctly the need for impulse control which is so commonly lacking in children and sometimes even into early adulthood.
Regardless of whether or not the juvenile offender learns from their mistake, they still come out of their detention labeled as a juvenile delinquent. When a young person acts out violently or maliciously, some experts will immediately question why they would do so. They attribute this kind of behavior to the offender doing to others what someone has done to them. Though this is not always the case, it is a large amount of them. This brings us to question just how civil it really is to immerse a young offender into a situation where they are going to be labeled, for at least the rest of their minor years, and even possibly beyond, when perhaps they are in reality only acting out the lifestyle they are used to.
In general, society will agree that offenders, young and old need to be off of our streets. We want to know that our children are safe and that our tax dollars are being put to good use by protecting and serving the people they are sworn to do so for. When a young person is acting out and causing emotional or physical harm to others then they must, at least temporarily, be removed from the environment that the behavior is occurring in. That is for the sake of all involved. Hopefully the child would be committed to a place where he or she could receive the help they need. There have been a lot of hopeful results in the field of behavior modification for some of these teens. And yet for other youths, they seem to live in a repeated pattern of offending, being remanded to treatment, gaining their release, only to offend once again.
What is responsible for keeping this cycle turning? In 2008, U.S. law enforcement arrested an estimated 2.11 million people under the age of 18. Are certain youths more vulnerable to delinquency? Is being labeled an offender less of a warning to others and instead a titled destined to drive the youth to endeavor to live up to that negative label?
So what purpose does being labeled serve? From the standpoint of justice labeling a young offender is a proper way to protect the general public. Those who are labeled are subject to the judgment of others who may or may not allow their own families to associate with them simply due to the nature of their offense. Although some would absolutely argue that especially for violent offenders, it would be very irresponsible to withhold labeling the child, as when the public is informed of a local youthful offender then they can be on guard and more protective of their property and families. Valuable local resources can be saved when a similar offense occurs near the past offenders local area and although this does subject them to the unfair aspect of being labeled, unfortunately, all too often law enforcement finds their culprit just where they knew to look.
In this country a large part of the population would argue that having the child labeled for their offense also brings much needed resources to them in the form of counselors, social workers and others who have made it their career to help those who are in need. A juvenile who has committed a crime will then have to deal with the court system that will subject them to some scrutiny of their characters, their lifestyles and much more personal information about their lives. In doing so they are formulating a plan to rehabilitate the child in hopes that they can learn from their mistake and in turn protect and serve the people justice.
Although there seems to be a purpose to labeling anyone, even a juvenile delinquent, for committing a crime, there is still a larger perspective to be considered. In 1973, the National Justice Criminal Reference Service (SCHUR, 1973) submitted a publication that suggested what they titled a 'Radical Non-intervention ' Rethinking the delinquency problem. This publication suggested that leaving the delinquents alone whenever possible may be an improvement on their current methods of dealing with juvenile offenders. Schurs radical idea of non-intervention may or may not have helped the juvenile justice system of 1973 deal with their unruly children, but today this would be considered a pretty frightening joke were it seriously considered in our country.
What isn't a joke for our young people in this day and time are the rationalizations behind why E.M. Schur suggested that we 'leave kids alone whenever possible.' Through his own investigations he observed issues that led him to theorize that the Juvenile Court System endorsed an indistinct and perplexing definition of delinquency. He cited that the court set dogmatic penalties and disguised punishment as 'treatment.' As opposed to attempting to force as many individual offenders as possible to adjust, he suggested that society itself adapt to as much diversity as possible. He also spent much time examining issues of the delinquency problem such as public attitudes and misconceptions, delinquent typologies and labeling. (SCHUR, 1973)
Is it fair for the social workers, the judges and the entire system to label a person for one action instead of considering all of the other actions they may have done that contributed to society in a kinder way? Of course there is always someone to proclaim that sometimes life just isn't fair. While I can't disagree with that statement, I can open my mind to the perspective of how disadvantageous labeling can be.
The Labeling theory holds that human behavior is largely a process through which individuals seek to establish and confirm workable self-images. (Paternoster, 2000) When an individual is made aware of their social role or societal expectations, it is easier to comply then it is to diverge from what they believe is expected of them in conduct, character and actions. So does labeling seem like a good idea or just a redundant one? If the labeling theory is correct then this means that each time we allow a juvenile offender to be labeled for one single action, we are in essence telling them that this is the behavior we expect from them. When we reflect on our own insecure and uncertain teenage years we can have a more clear perspective on how easy any of us could have fallen into the same unfortunate circumstances. The teen years are full of mistakes where the lack of impulse control caused problems to arise in some form or another. A lot of young people and people in general can and do actually learn from their mistakes. They can accept their punishment, serve the time for their crimes and move on to live perfectly emotionally healthy lives and raise children who can do the same. It is quite possible that some of our nations previous youth offenders very well may have had such a chance in life. The prospect of the opportunity to recover, to grow and learn from experience and then perhaps to even use the experience to benefit others, may have been stolen from them when they were labeled and in turn expected to live up to what they perceived others to want of them.
Perhaps this is where Paternoster and Schur found their passion for trying to draw attention to this double edged sword of our juvenile justice system that allows its delinquents to be labeled and forsaken of decent expectations by their own peers. They clearly discerned that labels could be given formally and informally. Being formally labeled by a judge or social worker may not cause as much emotional damage as an informal label given to a child by their parents or friends.
Another study attempted to determine if court intervention had reinforced their bad behaviors by producing spoiled identities or harming the relationships with the people who then viewed them with mistrust and suspicion because of their official status as delinquents. (Foster-Dinitz, 1972) They believed that an identity change would take place in which the person would then accept the label of 'criminal.' Even a young offender who had hopes and dreams of becoming the next nuclear scientist or college professor may then find themselves surrounded by equally labeled kids. They theorized that secondary offenses only occurred when both society and the individual shared the view that the offender was a criminal.
The labeling theory is not without its own flaws. In the book The Politics and Morality of Deviance (Ben-Yehuda, 2000) the theory states that no act in itself is criminal, insinuating that acts are only criminal because society has deemed them so. The implication of this is that the juvenile and adult criminal laws are ever changing and that they differentiate from society to society. But then you have to consider that most societies view acts such as murder or rape to be crimes worthy of being labeled for. The theory also claims that in order for someone who commits a crime to be truly labeled that there must be a gathering present to provide a reaction to the crime that was committed. Does that theory insinuate that if a rapist commits the crime and successfully avoids his identity being discovered that the act is not criminal and the rapist will not think of himself as such? However the theory clearly expresses that the labeling must come from a third party. (Hagan, 1973)
However, there are aspects of juvenile delinquency and its subsequent labels that we have yet to even consider. We have come to accept that juvenile offenders need to pay for their crimes and may pay additionally with a label that could last a lifetime, but how does this altered life path affect the members of the offenders' families?
Whether the family structure is intact, with a mother and father in the home, possibly siblings, or if the family unit has been divided and the household is a single parent one, there are many struggles and issues that arise from having an individual in the home who has been labeled a criminal. For a sociable family these issues can arise when their close friends or associates are wary of having extensive contact with them, or welcoming them into their home, if they will be bringing a child who has been labeled a criminal with them. This can lead to the innocent family members feeling the same type of scrutiny and humiliation that the offender themselves may have been dealing with. Then there are siblings if any, and if those siblings were active members in their communities, football players, cheerleaders, or rightfully mentors to other young people, then they likely will suffer the most of the family affected. They will likely be treated with the same disdain as their offending siblings and having never committed a crime themselves, may very well be even more bitterly impacted by the criminal labeling.
Family members are likely to have a variety of reactions, from pity and empathy to anger and annoyance, the range of emotions may vary, but the guilt the offender will live with will not alter much at all. It is fair to question whether or not a single offense should have such impact on the offenders and their families' lives. Perhaps it is time to rethink exactly what kind of crimes and how many offenses one must commit before our juvenile justice system declares them a criminal and a menace to our society. It is quite arguably correct that once a subject is labeled that they will indeed stop striving to better themselves and just relax and live up to the label given to them. It is definitely the easier way out. Maybe it would be better if instead we punished offenders and then instead of labeling them, order them by law to become a productive member of society, or accept the label they are attempting to create for themselves.
There are a lot of theories and studies out there from the past and the present that offer many suggestions and possibly solutions with programs that are beneficial and can help to keep youthful offenders from being permanently labeled. They all tend to outline how massively unjust it is to take the most impulsive people on the planet and label them forever. They want the focus on our youth to be in promoting them and lifting them up to eventually be the ones who take control of our world and continue to hopefully make it a better place.
We, as adults, know how horrible it can feel when we have disappointed those around us, our families, our friends, or even just our work associates. Hopefully as adults we are equipped to have better understanding that an incident, an instance in our lives, does not define who we are, what we are, and what we want to give or take from this world. Although we no longer throw our youth in jail alongside adult offenders as was done in our past, some could argue that to throw them into a label pool of offenders who may greatly differ in character or circumstance from them, could be just as potentially harmful.
There are a lot of arguments and theories as well about where the greater parts of our juvenile offenders come from. Does being raised by a single parent make someone more apt to commit some kind of crime? Is living below the poverty level an indicator that you will join a criminal life to have things that you wouldn't otherwise have by conforming to societal rules? Could being rich and entitled encourage you to use criminal activity to gain things with more immediate gratification like a rich youth may be accustomed to? Is it possible that the place in which you reside in your most formative years could alter who and what you are and increase your chances of repeating a cycle that has gone on for generations? A lot of scholars find this kind of deliberation on that particular subject to be a waste of time. It doesn't really matter who in general is at risk, until we can find a way to protect everyone while attempting to form a young 'criminal' into a productive member of society, because until then any and all are at risk, perhaps even the family and siblings of someone who has just committed their first crime.
There are a lot of questions and a lot of people who suggest they may have the answers. It may be time to take a look at what is available to those who may find themselves concerned about the juvenile justice system in this country. By ignoring the issue further we are only perpetuating the cycle that has been going on for a great many years now. Although we may not want children who commit crimes to be slapped on the wrist and set free to offend again and again, we also need to be careful of taking a young offender and turning them into an offender for life. In this instance weighing both sides of this very heavy coin and attempting to find a solution that harms no one and benefits all is ideal, conceivably this could be grasping at straws. As a country though, we owe it to our youth and to our own future to take the time and measure the options carefully until we can find quicker, easier and more effective ways to implement them. The time to correct the mistakes in our juvenile justice system is upon us and this is one of those cases when sometimes, it can indeed be too late.