The Juvenile Justice System Criminology Essay

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There is a need for reform in the Juvenile Justice System. Right now, children as young as seven can be charged and prosecuted as adults; sentenced to do their time in adult prisons with hardened and serial offenders that have committed a wide array of crimes that range from robbery, to rape, to murder. In a nation that believes "children are the world's most valuable resource", it is amazing how easily they are thrown away and forgotten, becoming lost in a system that denies them any second chances. This is an investigation into the policies, administrations, and procedures of the Juvenile Justice System. It is an inquisition of history, an analysis of personal accounts, and a synthesis of ideas to find the solution for not only curbing recidivism, but juvenile delinquency as a whole. This is an outcry for the attention of governors, senators, and other individuals in positions to aid in the elimination of charging and incarcerating those under the age of 18 as adults in a court of law.

As it stands, the Juvenile Justice System is riddled with holes that allow children to fall easily into adult criminal courts for even the most minor of offenses. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an expansion of transfer laws in nearly every state that allowed and sometimes demanded that children be tried in adult courts rather than adjudicated. Progression through criminal courts and subsequent housing in adult facilities is not conducive to the rehabilitation of a child offender. Because it serves the purpose of punishing career criminals and adult offenders who have committed heinous crimes, it is no place for those vulnerable to poor decision making because of underdevelopments in the brain. It is a scientific fact that the brain is in continual development throughout adolescence and the changes that occur affect the way teens react to and process information[cite5]. Deviant behavior is, at times, the consequence of these budding developments and may not necessarily be the fault of the child, but the mitigating circumstance of biology.

Punishment for decisions made as a child should not carry over into adulthood; yet trying and convicting juveniles as adults does just that. The conditions inside adult prisons are not conducive to rehabilitation efforts. They are intended more for punishment than for restorative purposes and do nothing to generate productive citizens as some of these offenders prepare to go back into society. There are a number of alternatives to prisons found within juvenile detention facilities all over the country that are being ignored in an abundance of cases. This is not to say that these facilities are perfect either as they also have their flaws.

These flawed systems, procedures, and facilities are counterproductive in getting children on the path to rehabilitation and encourage recidivism on a child that made an adolescent mistake. There must be a change in the system if we are to see a change in offenders and, in turn, a change in society. Speaking specifically, there are eight areas that must be addressed in order to generate a juvenile justice system that develops, repairs, and prepares young men and young women for a future with all the potential to be bright. The areas to be addressed include: (1)the conditions for minors in both adult and juvenile facilities, (2) the transfer laws that dictate the fate of minors who have fallen into the system, (3)the aftercare provided to the children post-release, (4)the community-based alternatives that could be implemented instead of formal detainment, (5)the evidence based practices that have been proven effective, (6)the defense provided to juveniles upon offense, (7)the overall disregard for the mental status of a child offender, and finally, (8) the consideration of disproportionate minority contact. It is paramount to fully understand these issues in order to begin a quest for their solution.

Problems in the current system

The turbulent history of the juvenile justice system is plagued with a copious number of mistakes. These mistakes contribute to issues within society that could be easily avoided by providing care for troubled children, rather than punishment. In an attempt to address these problems they must be tackled individually and then woven together for the bigger picture.

Conditions of Adult Confinement

The most obvious and outstanding of the issues being discussed is the placement of child offenders in adult facilities. On any given night in America, 10,000 children are held in adult jails and prisons.[1cite] The conditions in adult jails and prisons are by no means stable enough for a holistically healthy child to grow. Children housed with adult offenders suffer mistreatment and abuse at the hands of inmates as well as other guards, lack proper education or even opportunity for rehabilitative services, and deteriorate psychologically for a number of different reasons be it preexisting mental defects or experiences endured during their time in the adult facility. Held as a universal truth, there is no denying that violence in prisons and jails is inevitable. It is rooted in the culture and nurtured in an environment where prisoners are treated as animals rather than people. Assault and sexual abuse are reported by all inmates, but the statistics are exponentially more alarming in the case of minors in adult facilities.

A study conducted by Fagan et al., 1989 concluded that juveniles in adult prison were also 50 percent more likely to report being attacked with a weapon-not only by other inmates, but by staff in the facilities as well. In fact, it was also found that children placed with adults were twice as likely to report being "beaten up" by staff. More precisely, almost one in ten juveniles report being assaulted by staff. [3cite] This is just one testament to the inability of those in authority positions in these facilities to provide proper safety conditions for not only minors that are incarcerated, but for all prisoners housed behind their walls. In a time when children are most malleable, beatings, stabbings, riots, and even sexual assault become a part of everyday life.

Department of Justice data suggest that between one-third and one-half of the victims of inmate-to-inmate sexual abuse in prisons in the United States are under the age of 25.[2cite] A smaller physique and inexperience in not only life in general, but prisons and jails as well make youth being housed with adults alarmingly susceptible to rape and sexual assault by other older inmates. It is a nightmarish reality that most placed in adult facilities have to live with. There are some who are "fortunate" enough to never have experienced these things, but their fortune comes with a price as well.

For the facilities that recognize their incapacity to provide minors with a safe and controlled environment, they compensate for their shortcomings with solitary confinement. While isolation from the general population may seem like the best course of action, it has proven time and time again to be harmful and counterproductive. Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States is a 2012 report published by Human Rights Watch that delves into the use and abuse of solitary confinement in detention and correctional facilities. The report defines solitary confinement as "isolation for 22 hours per day or more, and for one or more days".[4cite]

Subjection to solitary confinement could be considered cruel and unusual punishment by anyone's terms of thought but, it has proven more harmful to those without the emotional maturity to deal with extreme punitive isolation for extended periods of time.

"Experts assert that young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely, short and long-term mental health problems. The most common deprivation that accompanies solitary confinement, denial of physical exercise, is physically harmful to adolescents' health and well-being.[5cite pg. 2]"

Besides mental health problems produced or intensified by solitary confinement there are also physical, educational, social, and developmental deficiencies that emanate from being wholly alone for exhaustive periods of time. The same study reported that many of the youth confined in isolation reported cutting or indulging in self-harm; females at higher rates than males. Of the 127 subjects used in the Human Rights Watch study, a mere thirty-one young people reported receiving educational programming of any type during a period of solitary confinement. Fourteen of those thirty-one young people reported receiving a packet of educational material to complete during their time. Twenty-five youths reported spending time in isolation during which they were not provided any educational programming at all; and sixteen described spending periods of time in solitary confinement without even a book or magazine to read. A majority of the time, institutions will implement restrictions on youth and their communication with their families, staff, and even other inmates in solitary, leaving the minor to experience being truly, completely, and totally alone.

Adult facilities are no place for children. To place a child in an adult correctional institution is to critically injure that child, mentally, physically, socially, and educationally. There is nothing to be gained from pure torturous punishment for child offenders; especially not with alternatives to this counterproductive treatment of the problem. One might ask themselves how a child might end up in an adult facility. It is actually much easier than it should be.

Transfer Laws

Transfer laws govern whether or not a crime committed by a minor (person under the age of 18) will be tried in adult criminal court or remain in juvenile court. There are three types of transfer laws: (1) legislative (automatic) transfer, (2) judicial-discretionary and, (3) prosecutorial-discretionary[cite6].

"Beginning in the 1980s, many States passed legal reforms designed to get tough on juvenile crime. One important reform was the revision of transfer (also called waiver or certification) laws (Griffin, 2003) to expand the types of offenses and offenders eligible for transfer from the juvenile court for trial and sentencing in the adult criminal court."

According to a 2012 bulletin released by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), 29 states participate in automatic transfer for cases that meet statutory standards. In essence, if a juvenile, as young as 14, commits a violent felony, they are automatically and without question sent to adult court to be tried as an adult even though they are still considered minors in every other aspect of society. When a decision as impactful as someone's life is made based on the standards of someone else's crime, there is an obvious flaw in justice. Forty of the fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia have judicial and prosecutorial transfer statutes, with the prosecutorial statutes often applicable only to older and more serious offenders[cite7]. When a decision as impactful as someone's life is made solely by one person, there is an obvious flaw in justice. Why then are these flaws allowed to continue?

The aforementioned bulletin released by the OJJDP states that, "among the principal goals of [such] transfer laws are the deterrence of juvenile crime and a reduction in the rate of recidivism[cite6]." It has been found however, through multiple longitudinal studies (e.g. Jensen and Metsger's (1994), Lee and McCrary (2005), etc.), that recidivism actually increases when minors are held in adult facilities as opposed to juvenile detentions centers. Although the limited research makes definitive conclusions difficult to reach, the bulk of the empirical evidence suggests that transfer laws, as they stand currently, probably have little to no deterrent effect on juvenile offenders.


Essential to the rehabilitation process is the treatment of a youthful offender once they are sentenced to detention. One would think that aftercare begins once the child is reintegrated into society, however, as explained by Steve V. Gies in a September 2003 OJJDP bulletin, "the process does not begin only after an offender is released. Instead, a comprehensive aftercare process typically begins after sentencing and continues through incarceration and an offender's release into the community[cite8]". Proper aftercare could mean the difference between recidivism and reformation for some children and without it youth could face failure, regression back into crime, and more detention. Unfortunately, there aren't many quality aftercare programs available to youth once they are introduced to the justice system. A lack of qualified staff, resources, program support, and funding ensures that the programs necessary for effective rehabilitation cannot occur in every situation[cite8]. There are a number of programs that do well in responding to the needs of newly-released youth offenders and they will be evaluated later on in the assessment section of this discourse.

On the other hand, it can be argued that there would be less of a demand for these programs if methods other than incarceration were used for treating antisocial behavior. There are a number of alternatives to incarceration, which are often overlooked in an attempt to remain "tough on crime"; sometimes "tough" is not the best response.

Community-Based Alternatives and Evidence-Based Practices

Involvement of the community is paramount to keeping children from becoming offenders in need of rehabilitation in the first place. It is absolutely critical that a child know that they are a member of a society to which they can contribute because knowing this develops a sense of belonging and pride for oneself and their community. There is a copious quantity of community-based correctional programs that can act as alternatives to incarceration. Probation, electronic monitoring, house arrest, day treatment, boot camp, and fines are all legitimate examples that have proven more effective than the detention of youth.

These programs enable adolescents to maintain the ties to family and community that are critical to development and change. They are cheaper, safer, maintain resources within the community, and prepare and nurture the community leaders of the future[cite]. Juvenile facilities are filled with low-level offenders that could have been effectively and safely managed without out-of-home placement and superfluous punishment. In fact, most successful community based programs and aftercare treatments work by employing evidence-based practices. Effective research is making it much easier for officials and advocates alike to respond to the needs of children in the system or in danger of falling into it.

Evidence-based programs like Multisystemic Therapy[cite10] and Family Functional Therapy have proven consistently more effective than traditional juvenile justice methods. Even though there is extensive research that supports other programs and services that are successful in improving behavior and emotional functioning, many juvenile justice systems struggle to put these proven and scientifically supported approaches into practice. The juvenile justice system must stray from their need to inflict formal punishment on youth before consideration can be made for other, more efficacious, practices.

Juvenile Indigent Defense

Just as in the adult criminal justice system, youthful offenders are granted the right to legal counsel when they are accused of a crime; however, unlike adults in trouble with the law, children face more hurdles when it comes to obtaining timely, competent, and attentive representation[cite13]. A June/July 2010 Juvenile Justice Update report quoted the opinion of two juvenile defense attorneys that address issues in this field from their point of view.

"We are bombarded and overburdened. The state files so many dumb charges like curfew, loitering and prowling, pedestrian in the roadway, simple battery for throwing a firecracker. Kids are on probation for a long time and are brought back in on another dumb charge. We wait long hours for our court appearances to begin. We are not incorporated into the system. We have no investigator. We are desperately in need of a third defender[cite13]."

This passage does an excellent job of giving a general overview of the issues still faced by juvenile defenders today but, this is not the full scope of the issue. There are still the issues that accused youth face when entering the system.

The list of trouble in the court for youthful offenders is extensive. It can be argued that a majority of these problems stem a lack of knowledge about constitutional rights and courtroom procedures. Things as simple as language used in courtrooms and trials are often foreign to child offenders and because of that, youth frequently end up waiving their rights or accepting a plea before they understand the consequences of their actions[cite13]. Age and immaturity makes children involved in the justice system more susceptible to manipulation by prosecutors and sometimes that act is made even easier by other factors.

Mental Health

It is safe to estimate that at least one out of every five youth in the juvenile justice system has serious mental health problems[cite14]. This statistic is made possible by a lack of mental health screenings and assessments for minors that come in contact with the juvenile justice system. The terms "screening" and "assessment" are often used interchangeably by those in the field; however a 2012 report by Gina M. Vincent asserts that they are two very different things.

"Screening can serve as a cost-effective method for identifying potential mental health problems that can be applied to all youth entering a system or facility. Assessment, on the other hand, can provide more extensive and individualized identification of mental health needs for only those individuals whose screening results suggest it is warranted[cite15]."

Applying both screening and assessment to the juvenile justice system is paramount to reducing the number of youth in facilities whose conditions are getting worse instead of better because they are not receiving proper care or treatment during detention.

While every offender deserves comprehensive and impartial treatment for whatever mental disease they may be suffering from, there are some who the justice system must make provisions for. A publication by the National Mental Health Association asserts that, "youth with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, girls, and youth of color require special consideration based on their particularly unique needs[cite16]." The piece goes on to explain that these groups are more at risk for things like depression, making them more susceptible to suicide and self-harm.

Those suffering from co-occurring disorders make up a high percentage of the juvenile prison population with studies showing that as many as 75 to 80 percent of adolescents receiving inpatient substance abuse treatment have coexisting mental disorders. In the age at which juvenile girls enter the system, their psychological, biological, and relationship needs are often in crisis. In addition to that, a number of the girls are females of color and most have been physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused. They often come from poor and unstable communities where substance abuse is the norm, making them at risk for the same consequences for those with co-occurring disorders[cite18].

Minorities, while considered that in the population, are the majority in the justice system. Their issues stem from an unaddressed institutionalized racism that continues to be ignored even though there are statistics that support the assumption of disproportionate minority contact.

Disproportionate Minority Contact

Although African-American youth between ages 10 and 17 constitute only 15 percent of the U.S. population, they account for an array of alarming statistics. They are 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 32 percent of delinquency referrals to juvenile court, 41 percent of juveniles detained in delinquency cases, 46 percent of juveniles committed to secure institutions, and 52 percent of juveniles transferred to adult criminal court[cite19]. The number of Hispanic youth in the United States has increased faster than the number of youth of any other racial or ethnic group, growing from 9 percent of the juvenile population in 1980 to 16 percent in 2000[cite20]. The 1997 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) showed that American Indian youth ages 10-17 constituted 2 percent of youth in secure correctional facilities nationwide but were only 1 percent of the national youth population[cite21]. As evidenced by these statistics, youth of color are more likely to be incarcerated and to serve more time than white youth, even when they are charged with the same category of offense. The question asked by most is why is this the case?

The Disproportionate Minority Confinement report updated for 2002, released by the OJJDP, attributes this fact to a number of factors that include, racial stereotyping and cultural insensitivity, a lack of alternatives to detention and incarceration, a misuse of discretionary authority, and a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services[cite22]. All of these are things, and those addressed in this discourse thus far, must be addressed in a solution. A solution that must be broad and all-encompassing if there is to be a change in the system that is failing our youth and, by extension, our future.

Assessment of programs that do well in addressing these issues

The myriad of things wrong with the juvenile justice system, do not deter certain people, groups, and organizations from attempting to find solutions that address some of them. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Human Rights Watch, and The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth are just some of the long list of advocacy groups fighting for the rights of children caught in the justice system. There are also government programs established that are making strides in completing the task that juvenile detention centers and adult prisons alike cannot, reducing recidivism and increasing public safety.

The Missouri Model

It is impossible not to talk about the Missouri Model in any discussion about success in juvenile justice reform. In 2001, the American Youth Policy Center identified Missouri as a "guiding light" for reform in juvenile justice[cite23]. Its success stems from six core characteristics that make the program vastly different from conventional methods of behavior modification. The first of these is small, non-prisonlike, regional facilities close to home. Unlike other juvenile care facilities in the nation, there are a limited number of beds in Missouri's Youth Correctional facilities and they are never filled. Specifically, the largest of Missouri's 32 residential youth corrections programs has only 50 beds with each of the seven secure care facilities serving 36 youth or less[cite23]. Smaller groups of youth to serve allow for individualized attention and the regional facilities allow offenders to remain close to their homes and communities.

The second characteristic is the Individualized Care within a Group Treatment Model. In every residential facility, youth spent almost every second of everyday with their treatment groups. The groups usually consist of 10-12 children that are responsible for themselves as well as their group.

"…they [the youth] are held accountable by the group for any disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behavior. Rather than facing isolation or punishment when they act out, youth are called upon to explain their thoughts and feelings, explore how the current misbehavior relates to the lawbreaking that resulted in their incarceration, and reflect on how their behavior impacts others[cite23(20)]."

Individual therapy sessions are reserved for those that exhibit special needs, however the group has proven more effective than individualized therapy and is therefore primary in the psychological treatment of the juveniles.

Characteristic number three is Safety through Relationships and Supervision, Not Correctional Coercion. This basically speaks of the child's need for, not only physical safety, but emotional safety as well. This safety is maintained through constant supervision and a no tolerance policy for emotional and physical abuse. In an environment of mutual respect, healthy relationships grow and foster emotional security in the young person, preventing them from retreating from the process and reverting to their usual coping mechanisms.

Following that is characteristic four, Building Skills for Success. Something important to the rehabilitation process is preparing for the future. While the emotional and physical safety enables the children to focus on that, it is only a stepping stone to the self-awareness and communication skills that are necessary for building academic and pre-vocational skill necessary to become productive members of society[cite23(31)]. Through crucial insights into the roots of their delinquent behavior and leadership opportunities that involve interacting with strangers, often times officials in the juvenile justice field and the public visiting the facilities, offenders develop skills that may even exceed those of non-incarcerated youth[cite23(31-32)].

The fifth characteristic of the Missouri Model is Families as Partners. As mentioned before, one of the most crippling flaws of the juvenile justice systems is to exclude a juvenile's family and surrounding community. The Missouri Department of Youth Services engages the family throughout a youngster's matriculation beginning with immediate outreach, going into ongoing consultation, family therapy, and partnership in release planning and aftercare[cite23(34)].

Aftercare is the final characteristic of the model. It is the "critical period in which young people reenter the community and resume their normal lives following a period of confinement[cite23(35)]. Upon reentry, the youth is still constantly supervised by their care specialist however, unlike traditional parole practices, the specialist is supplemented by an appointed "community-based mentor", often a college student, that serves as a role model for the recently released offender[cite23(35)].

This model is a critical step forward in juvenile justice reform. A majority of successful programs for youth in the system stem from the six characteristics that were just discussed. While the model has been successful in Missouri, other states struggle to adapt the same practices because of its intricate, multi-dimensional treatment approach as well as the mandatory 24/7 supervision that would be required for the program[cite23(35)]. It is a commitment some are not prepared to make, but a commitment that is necessary for the change that is needed for our youth to succeed.

New Beginnings

There are some areas that have taken on the challenge of adapting the Missouri Model for their area and the efforts of the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) are worth discussion in this subject. New Beginnings Youth Development Center is a 60-bed facility for youth that have been committed to the criminal justice system in Maryland and the District of Columbia. New Beginnings was started in a response to the closing of Oak Hill Youth Center, which was infamous for its use of punitive force and secure confinement in response to juvenile crime. With help from the Missouri Department of Youth Services, DYRS was able to develop their own model for reform. Just as their predecessor, the DC juvenile justice reform model was "built on a foundation of therapeutic values-including personal accountability, self-exploration, human dignity, and family involvement-that are manifested in two specific therapeutic techniques: positive youth development and group process[cite24]."

The children at New Beginnings go through a lot of the same treatment processes utilized in Missouri. With compassion and understanding, staff at New Beginnings teaches youth that their actions do have consequences, but those consequences do not have to follow them for the rest of their lives. The program helps to develop youth who do not just obey the law and the rights of other people, but who truly respect them as well.

Families and Schools Together (FAST)

Synthesis of Programs to create solution

Problems that might arise in solution

Staffing and budget and resources, there is no money and the reestablishment of the ojjdp would bring change.[Cite11]