Law in Contemporary Society

Juvenile Justice

-- By DavidGarfinkel - 25 Feb 2010

During one of my summers in college, I served as a volunteer law clerk for one of the District Attorney’s Juvenile offices. This was my first true introduction to criminal justice, entering with an optimistic mindset about the potentials of this special branch, but ending disappointed and concerned about its problems.

Purposes of Juvenile Justice

There are several overarching ideals or purposes of criminal justice. First is justice. The American adversarial system is expected to have a process by which the prosecution and defense in front of a jury vigorously fight for their respective side, with the outcome that those who did commit the crime are convicted and those who did not are found not guilty. The next is punishment, which is self-explanatory. The third ideal is removal, in which the justice system removes, generally through incarceration, those who are deemed too dangerous to live among normal society. Finally, criminal justice is supposed to help rehabilitate those who can learn the error of their ways, thereby preventing future crimes.

The Juvenile Court system contains these ideals, but contains elements tailored for the unique situation of the minors. For justice, juveniles have their own system without juries which speeds up the process, decreasing the burden on the defendant and allowing the allocation of resources to areas that may be more helpful in dealing with crime. Punishment occurs, but focused primarily on sending convicted defendants to camps rather than traditional prisons. More importantly, it is done to separate juveniles from adult criminals, preventing exploitation and abuse and decreasing the influence such criminal elements might have on minors. In addition, it provides forms of socialization for troubled children that protect other school children while instilling attitudes and skills that may serve to prevent future criminal activity. Finally, the ideal of rehabilitation takes a prominent role, since it is predicated on the hope that minors could be more easily reformed so that they could be productive and law abiding adults. A prominent feature of this is the practice of striking offenses from a juvenile’s record, so that he will not be adversely affected in attaining future education and job opportunities.

Current Problems with Juvenile Justice

Unfortunately, there are many problems with the system. First concerns punishment. A significant number of prosecutions and sentences do not comport to principles of proportionality, especially in respect to status crimes like truancy and running away. This results in increasing the burden on tax payers and the system’s financial resources. Financial problems result in a lack of probation and community based services as well as overcrowded and understaffed detentions centers. Similar to adult criminal statistics, certain minority groups are over represented in the system. The recidivism rate is much higher than should be expected for a system that tries to prioritize rehabilitation.

Possible Solutions

Many of the problems and solutions can easily apply to criminal justice in general. Of course, the most effective solutions will address the underlying problems that result in juvenile crimes, primarily public education, poverty, and border control (possibly abortion access if follow Freakonomics). An important solution would be to make prosecution and sentencing more proportional to the crimes, decreasing the use of detentions for juvenile defendants. This requires providing greater access to probationary and community services, especially for those dealing with addiction and mental health. Another important reform is to encourage greater socialization and education that teach independence and important skills. Living in a constantly supervised community environment does not comport to normal social development, and makes it difficult to return to normal society. A major consequence of this is inability to function and tendency to return or join the criminal elements, notably gangs, which had contributed to previous criminal activity.

Barriers to Reform

One important barrier is the political process. Reform is always a difficult thing to accomplish when dealing with entrenched institutions. This is especially so when politically powerful groups have a strong interest in maintaining the present system. In California, the Prison Guards Union has served as a strong impediment to reform efforts. A large proportion of the voting population strongly believes in a disproportionate existence of violent crime in the United States. This belief is significantly colored by the spike of crime during the 90s and the doomsday predictions of a future youth crime wave. These ideas are out of sync with the reality of decreasing violent crime, which juvenile prosecutions are out of proportion with. In addition, there is substantial resistance to the idea that teenagers have very different psychological, even biological, makeup than adults, requiring different responses by the criminal justice system to help punish and rehabilitate more effectively. The over represented poor and minorities have comparatively little influence in the political process, and their correlation with crime discourages the political majority from supporting initiatives to reform the system. Politicians, by pushing for more stringent criminal punishments, can deflect the public from seeing the true problems of the system, the underlying wealth disparity and racial divide that is politically much harder to address.


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r8 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:12 - IanSullivan
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