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In September of 2008, Barney Brown had finally realized his dream that the living nightmare of his life would end. After 38 years behind bars as a victim of wrongful prosecution, Brown was now as innocent and free as he was the day he was arrested as a 13 year old boy living in Hollywood, Florida. In 1970 Brown was taken into custody after the vehicle he was riding in after school was pulled over. The police suspected his involvement in the rape and robbery of a white woman and her husband. Although not charged or identified in a lineup, Brown was held for four days without his parents' notification. Even though he was reported missing, the police continued to interrogate him using beatings to force a confession. After he was acquitted as a juvenile, Brown was retried as an adult through a loop-hole in the law. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His nightmare had just begun (Hansen, 2010).
Throughout human history children and teens have committed crimes along with their adult contemporaries. As far back as the middle ages, children in trouble faced harsh consequences in line with many of the harshest punishments of the day. Being viewed as property of the father of the house, losing a parent meant becoming wards of the government for children of the era. Much like our modern system today, the questions of how best to deal with and care for these young law breakers was a thorny issue. The truth is hard to swallow but, the fact remains that kid offenders are capable of very adult crimes. Finding the most effective means of controlling and preventing these crimes has become an ever more critical hot button topic in today's society. Each year American society will see close to 1,100 youth offenders arrested for homicide and another 4,200 arrested for rape (Clear, 2008). These numbers are alarming and demonstrate the need for a justice system to effectively meet the goals of crime control. With many of these young offenders being turned over to be tried as adults, questions arise as to just how fair, effective, and beneficial this practice is in dealing with juvenile offenders. This practice has ignited controversy and spurred society to take a close hard look at American juvenile justice. Youth crime has been an issue in American society since the founding of our nation over two hundred years ago. Still today we are faced with the issue of juvenile crime and the repercussions it brings. As a nation with over seventy five million people under the age of 18, it is little wonder that two million of those were arrested in 2001. Just over four percent of those arrested were for crimes of violence (Clear, 2008). Despite the fact that youth crime has decreased, most Americans view juvenile crime as a major alarming issue. Young people are supposed to represent our next generation of leaders, not a sector of the prison population.
Juvenile justice theories and practice have changed and evolved over the course of American history. As industry grew and developed, so too did the society that propelled it. The text from American Corrections by Clear, Cole, and Resig, outlines the periods of juvenile corrections and approach throughout the history of our nation. The ideas, attitudes, and practices changed and evolved with the times. The Puritan Period from 1646 to 1824 marked the earliest stage of juvenile justice and was greatly influenced by the English policies. The early American colonies dealt with problem children through the Massachusetts Stubborn Child Law passed in 1646 that viewed children as evil miscreants in need of tough discipline by their family (Clear, 2008). Children who did not follow the rules of their parents were harshly punished by the law. Throughout the remaining years of the 1800's, reformers led to the creation of the first institutions designed to house "bad" children and those who were abused or neglected. These facilities taught work and study skills and provided a disciplined atmosphere (Clear, 2008). Institutions like these popped up in just about every major city in the colonies and were supported through donation and charity. In reality, these facilities mirrored adult corrections despite the lofty stated goals. Children were treated harshly, in stark contrast to what reformers intended. It became clear at the start of the nineteenth century that a new approach was needed in dealing with youth offenders.
The first juvenile court system was born in Chicago in 1899 and found its principals based on parens patriae. Through this system, the best interest of the child served as the foundation for the court's decision in juvenile cases (Clear, 2008). At this early stage of juvenile justice courts, intervention was the focus with efforts put forth to assist young offenders learn the ways of being law-abiding citizens. As guardian of the child, courts implemented guidelines to treat and avert youth from crime. The age at which courts treated juveniles varied by state with some treating youth as old as sixteen as an adult. Any child delinquent, neglected, or dependent upon the state was under jurisdiction of the court. The definition of delinquent would come to be the focal point for the juvenile justice debate that rages still today. Any child committing an act that would be criminal for an adult is considered delinquent by the court (Clear, 2008).
It is important to note that up until 1960, delinquents and juveniles in general were not granted the same due process rights as those given to adults. The differences did not stop at due process rights. The terminology used for similar actions is also distinctly different between the adult and juvenile system. Juveniles are not arrested but detained, not charged but referred, not convicted but adjudicated, not sentenced but placed. This disparity between the systems coupled with high rates of recidivism helped to put juvenile justice matters back under the microscope. The crime control period that started in 1980 has continued to present day with many critics arguing that juvenile courts are nothing more than criminal courts for children. Several landmark Supreme Court cases have brought about changes in an attempt to fix the system and restore the rights of juveniles to those held by adult defendants. Some however, believe that juveniles have it too easy and should be treated as adults. Commit an adult crime, do adult time but, how young is too young?
As a result, judges frequently abused authority in decision making that called attention to the inequality. A story from the ABA Journal by Wendy Davis in September 2009 highlights this judicial abuse of authority and points out the unfortunate consequences of this abuse. Judge Mark Ciavarella from Luzerne County Pennsylvania was forced to step down in 2008 after his part in a scandal involving his seat as the juvenile court judge was uncovered. From 2003 to 2008, Ciavarella ruled as the only juvenile court judge in the small county with an iron fist for tough love on juveniles. The rate at which he sent young offenders to detention centers was startling. Many were first time offenders and misdemeanor crimes. Nearly twenty five percent of his cases were sent away from home. Furthermore, his cozy relationship with school officials resulted in quick arrest by police for the smallest of infraction. Very few defendants had legal representation due to the judge's reputation for having them waive their right to a lawyer. This blatant practice would be the undoing of Ciavarella as investigators uncovered a scheme in which boot camp developers paid him kickbacks for keeping their facilities fully stocked. Ultimately, the judge was convicted for his role in the scheme and hundreds of juvenile cases were thrown out. (Davis, 2009)
Another issue at hand, stoking the debate over juvenile justice procedure centers on the costs, measured in psychological and social terms. Young people are supposed to be full of potential and in theory have a greater chance of being rehabilitated to fulfill that potential after they commit crimes. Young people are able change and have the ability to learn a different way of being. The fact that most juveniles who are arrested never get into trouble again backs this up. Less than a quarter of juveniles who commit crimes and receive punishment ever return to crime again. Treating teens as adults and trying them in adult court results in adult punishments. This includes prison. The problem as critics point out is that teens are not adults. Coincidentally as Hassakis points out from the same state of Illinois where the juvenile justice court system started, "Brain research has confirmed that teens and even young adults are not fully developed mentally. They think and act differently". This fact however has not seemed to register fully with those who have taken a firm stance to be tough on youth crime. After founding the juvenile justice court system on the basis of rehabilitating youth and looking out for their best interest, Illinois spent several decades until recently to expand the ways in which young offenders could be tried as an adult (Hassakis, 2010). Although this trend is being reduced in Illinois, it has continued across much of the United States echoing the get tough sentiment. Depending on the state in which crimes are committed, youth offenders are turned over to adult courts for serious crimes at surprisingly early ages. Those who are waivered (transferred to adult court system) are often seen as having little likelihood of being rehabilitated. Crimes like sexual assaults and murder are often the automatic waivers to adult courts however, an increasing number of smaller crimes like drug, property, and others are being transferred over. With only twenty seven percent of juvenile waivers resulting in prison sentences the effectiveness of the practice comes into question. These juveniles are no more likely to avoid crime in the future either. Hassakis points out that the unfounded fear-based notion that juvenile crime is on the rise is responsible for the propensity to waiver. The Department of Justice points out that juvenile crime has decreased over the past two decades and at an all time low in 2006 (United States Department of Justice, 2010). The perception that "most people" want the justice system to crack down on youth with detention centers is also a misconception. Research by the MacArthur foundation has found that 95% of the tax payers would rather spend that money on rehabilitation rather than prison (Hassakis, 2010). It must also be considered that placements away from home severely disrupt the family and peer connections that are vital to the rehabilitation and overall mental development of youth offenders.
Alternatives to harsh punishments are supported by the opponents of the get tough approach to juvenile crime. Intermediate sanctions for juveniles are very similar to the programs of the juvenile justice system and are available options besides traditional probation. Intensive supervision programs for juveniles differ from adult systems. The supervision that juveniles are subjected to, usually limit them to curfews, as opposed to the electronic monitoring often used in adult programs. Other community based programs are far more intrusive options that require close contact between the offender and the system. Boot camps designed in the military mold are strict disciplinary programs that focus on routine and structure. The goal is to teach self-respect and self-esteem through rigorous exercise and intense guidance. Boot camps do have their critics and have loss popularity from negative publicity. Work camps and restitution centers are also part of the repertoire used by the juvenile justice system. These programs require the offender to participate in public service through clean up initiatives such as highway and roadside trash collection. Traditional community service programs are also widely used in juvenile corrections and normally require the offender to carry out a specified number of hours giving back to the community. This is accomplished through voluntary efforts carried out on the local level through church activities, community cleanup, and other organized service efforts. All of these programs offer alternatives to incarceration that are more cost effective to the community and less destructive to the relationships that young offenders have with family that are crucial to growth and development.
It is an unfortunate fact that some crimes committed by youth offenders are far too violent or far too frequent to garner a light sentence that comes with community corrections or intermediate sanctions. In these situations the conviction results in a sentence that requires incarceration. The rate of incarceration for juvenile offenses varies across the country from state to state with a national average of just 307 per 100,000 juveniles. These sentences are served in both public and private facilities across the country with 109,225 youth under 21 years of age in these institutions (Clear, 2008). Over 4000 of these are doing time in adult prisons. Institutions such as foster homes, reform schools, and training centers are also used by the court system and most often employed where families are not able to provide a safe nurturing environment for the child. Although less restrictive than prisons, reform schools and training centers are much more strict in reducing freedoms than foster homes. Juveniles coming out of these institutions are provided with support services to help them adapt to life after placement and custody. Possibly the most glaring issue of concern raised through the incarceration system stems from the disparity that too often exists between the minority population incarcerated and the population in a given state as a whole. These disparities often mirror the adult system again with African American males being represented at much higher rates. The number of Latino juvenile incarcerations also continues to climb demonstrating the overall trend of increasing minority populations in juvenile justice systems throughout the country.
The numbers and data seem to indicate that resources and effort would be best spent on expanding the juvenile justice alternatives such as probation, and diversion with waiver to adult court being reserved only the most severe violent crime offenders. Prevention alternatives are a popular mode of addressing the issues of juvenile crime by stopping it before it starts. Increased efforts through community policing may not always be ideally possible but can be an effective deterrent in countering crime. Knowing that youth crime is often labeled as a group endeavor, the connection to gang activity is firm. Gang reduction task forces as part of the community policing efforts in conjunction with law enforcement are often effective and supported prevention tactics (Carroll, 2010). One increasingly popular crime prevention tool popular in the fight in reducing juvenile offenses is the school resource officer program. In this program the partnership between law enforcement and the education system is used to install full time officers on the campus of high schools and middle schools. Both sheriff departments and local police departments participate in this program with funding often coming from state and federal grant programs. The officer on campus serves as an educator and role model as well as a deterrent presence. The goal of the officer is to prevent and reduce crime through education efforts that offer counseling to students, parents, and teachers throughout the community. The federal government defines the role of resource officers as "a career law enforcement officer, with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing, and assigned by the employing police departments and sheriffs in collaboration with school and community-based organizations" (Carroll, 2010). Another popular prevention measure in place across states like Florida involve afterschool programs designed to give at risk students an alternative to loose time in the streets after school. This program is often found in school districts with lower scoring schools as well as high risk populations. These programs are also funded through state and federal grant programs that serve as part of a greater effort to improve student performance and safety. The added benefit to the community by keeping kids off the street reduces the opportunity for mischief.
The truancy prevention program is another alternative measure that helps to reduce juvenile crime. The truancy prevention program is found in the majority of school districts operating in collaboration with law enforcement. The goal of truancy prevention is to take advantage of laws that require student school attendance by forcing parents to be accountable for the attendance of their child. Those students who accumulate a high degree of absent days and tardiness are reported to the truancy department officer for closer watch of attendance behavior. Further violation of the policy results in parent and student appearance in court in front of the judge. Parents can be sentenced to jail time and fined. The benefit of these programs can be measured by the increased attendance and performance in school. In addition, youth in school are less likely to commit crimes in the community. Programs in schools also serve to prevent juvenile crime by focusing on the prevention of violence and bullying. Truancy prevention and resource officer programs help to accomplish this goal.
Whether though increased community prevention measures or increased school based initiatives, the answer is quite clear. Without a consistent, persistent, collaborative effort put forth by all parties involved, juvenile offenders and the system itself will continue to struggle. Families cannot afford to be torn apart and, the community cannot afford to pay the price of juvenile crime. The inequality and disparity that exist are further indictments of a system that is flawed and in serious need of repair. Perhaps involving young first time offenders in programs of training and on-going support will prevent them from reaching a situation where delinquency has them thrown in with violent criminals twice their age. The monetary and social cost of our juvenile systems will continue to rise to higher levels right along with the debate that rages on demanding reform. What is absolutely certain is that doing nothing will destroy it all. Although no best answer exists, true collaboration and community support is a great start.