Understanding American juvenile justice system

What is meant by juvenile justice?

How a juvenile justice system set up by the government functions?

Why there’s a need for a separate authority to deal with juvenile justice?

Juvenile justice is nothing but how the youth under the age of 18 committing a crime or illegal activities should be punished way differently from the adults who have attained the age of majority. In recent times, the number of minors committing crime is increasing very rapidly.

Juvenile courts are the ones that are set up to give judgements for the crimes that are committed by the young. The main goal of setting up such a special authority is to deal with these young minds in different ways. In other words, it is just like a rehabilitation centre where they are made to learn about life and are educated. Keeping in view, the sensitivity of their age and immaturity, the interrogation by the police and other activities are done very carefully.

juvenile justice system in america

A separate system for Juveniles

Around the 17th and 18th centuries, crimes were severely punished by the church. Even the children around the age of 8 were punished severely and could receive the death penalty also.

With the changing time, there were debates about the justice for the young committing criminal offences. There were many questions about whether the young are to be treated like adults or their punishment could be different from others.

Keeping in view the tender age and immaturity of the adolescents, Barry Krisberg and James F. Austin formed the New York House of Refuge in 1825. It was the first program that targeted the juvenile delinquency. The most wonderful stage of life is childhood. It is technically a phase of social construction of a child, where the child is brought up with all the moral values and respect. Many other child saving organizations like houses of refuge, reform schools and social charities were founded with an idea of reemphasizing on moral rehabilitation. These were the few ways to differentiate the young and adults in the context of justice for the offence committed, during the early 1900’s.

America witnessed their first juvenile court in Illinois, in the year 1899. Few members of the Chicago Women’s club like Julia Lathrop, Lucy Flower and Jane Addams were the reason for the creation of this court. These women later acted as the advisors for the juvenile offenders. The juveniles were most deserving for rehabilitation than the adults being the central assumption, paved way for the modern juvenile justice system. Emerging of courts laid the foundation for this.

However, the rising crime rates around the 1970’s and 1980’s saw a period for “tough-on-crime” policies. This era mainly was characterized by harsh punishments for the youth. Even the punishments were given on the grounds of racial discrimination and gender disparities.

Around the 1990’s, the offenders of serious crime even young ones were punished severely. Juvenile courts were transformed to allow the prosecution of juveniles as adults more easily.

An act which brought a huge rise in the juvenile crime was the implementation of the Gun-Free School Act (GFSA) in 1994. It was one of the examples for the “tough-on-crime” policies that contributed to an increase in the number of school students possessing a gun. This was the main reason for any numbers of school going children are being arrested and detained, as they are becoming a threat to other students. Therefore, the schools have become the primary stage for juvenile arrest. And the punishments the young are facing are increasing in severity. In today’s world, this can be referred as School to prison pipeline.

Minorities in Juvenil justice

The experiences of the minority youth in the juvenile justice system are strikingly different from other. The minority youth are disproportionately represented throughout the juvenile justice system. The criminal cases reported in urban areas are more likely to result in harsh punishments rather than in urban areas. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, urbanization can be a contributing factor. And that’s may be the reason for different processing of the criminal cases. The arrest rate shows that the African-American youth are arrested more likely for drug crimes. Therefore they are more likely to face conviction in adult courts.

In the early 1990’s, states reacted to the increase in the juvenile crime for the possession of guns by the young ones. The racial bias within the justice system is also cited as the main reason for overrepresentation of the minority youth. There were many explanations for different minority contact based on their race.

In 2007, the Disproportionate Minority Contact Action Network which was operated by Centre for Children’s Law and Policy focuses on making the juvenile system racial free. The goals of this network are to support the involved jurisdiction and implement best practices to reduce disproportionate minority contact and bring change. New policies and practices were introduced to respond to create awareness about the system biases and guide the related decisions at the local and state levels.

In 2007, South Dakota established programs to address the issue. The programs focused on cultural awareness for Native American and cultural assessment training for the juvenile justice practitioners. The juveniles are given the longer period of punishments. As various explanations have emerged for the disproportionate treatment of minorities which ranged from jurisdiction issues to the police practices.

As states continue to create and formulate various policies to reduce the racial disparities among the juveniles, data collection has become the most important problem. Court documents are the ones that help to obtain the most accurate and detailed documentation. Reliable data are important to make effective analysis and generate appropriate solutions for the disparities.

Awareness is the critical aspect of reducing the bias. Some states even have arranged for seminars and training sessions for judges, prosecutors, leaders, parents and others.

The overrepresentation of young people on their colour in the juvenile justice system questions the equality of treatment for youth. The way these juveniles are handled can majorly affect their development and opportunities in the future. Everyone’s attention towards the issue can improve fairness for all the youth in this system of juvenile justice.

Myths about Juvenile Justice

The perception of young people and their behaviour is largely shaped by the media. The childhood is the phase for mental and emotional development. In this stage of life, they are at a greater risk of mental health problems, alcohol and another drug usage. Therefore, they are more likely to be victims of crime.

The following are the myths and the reality about the juvenile justice:

  1. The boot camps are the best ways to put the youth offenders out of their criminal ways.

Boot camps are the ones that feature tough physical training to develop discipline in the juveniles. Some programs even provide education and job besides rehabilitation. But, the military type approach to the punishment even makes it harder for the juveniles to survive sometimes.

  1. The juvenile crime rate is very high and our society is at high risk.

Juvenile crime constitutes a very small fraction of the total crimes being committed. While the media states that there is a huge increase in the reportage of juvenile crime. The fear that the society is under threat from its own children is widely exaggerated.

  1. Juveniles are fit to be tried as adults for committing “adult crimes.”

Children under the age of 18, are undergoing physiological, mental and emotional changes during their adulthood. The changes create many structural changes in the human brain and this is the time for great vulnerability. The act of engaging in “adult crimes” such as murder and rape would not imply their immaturity but, it is the evidence of juveniles for their reckless behaviour.

Adolescents are more prone to peer pressure and get influenced by negative stuff very easily. They are less likely to focus on the future outcomes of their deeds.

  1. Juveniles involved in heinous crimes are truly sadistic. They are the exception and must be treated differently.

The heinous crimes are very sensational and it is easy to believe that those who are involved in those are just born evil.  Just like how a juvenile can be influenced to commit the crime, if given an opportunity to care and protect, he can also be transformed into a law-abiding citizen. Children exhibit zeal to be all grown up but what it means to be grown up is largely influenced by the grown-ups present around.

  1. Young offenders are set to be career criminals.

Most of the young people under the age of 18 and are involved with the police will not commit the crime in the future. Practically, they will tend to grow out of their crime from their late adolescents.

  1. All young people are violent thugs and are not affected by crime.

The majority of young people who come for courts have committed crimes against property or public transport related offences. Young people are especially susceptible to being victims of violent crime due to their great exposure to risk. Assaults against the young people between the age of 15 and 17 are often committed at the place of study or work.

Should Juveniles be tried as adults?

The young people are different from adults. They are more likely to be influenced by their peers because that is the stage for their mental and emotional development.

The main cause of juvenile crime is weak family bonding, child abuse and not so effective supervision by the parents. The juvenile offenders shouldn’t be going through the adult criminal courts, was the basic note on which juvenile courts were set up. They were created to handle the offenders based on their youth and not on the crime committed.

Some argued, that the purpose of these courts was to safeguard the youth from their own consequences. While some believed that, since children aren’t fully matured, they shouldn’t be held to the same standards of adults. The purpose of the courts is to treat, not deter.

Changing the social environment in which the juveniles live more effectively is the main element to reduce juvenile violence.

They are treated differently from adults because adults are believed to be of sound mind and are capable of making decisions. The youth are considered to be weak, both mentally and physically. This is the same reason why they are tried as juveniles and not adults. By treating the juveniles as adults and punishing them in the same way, leads to mental disability and further damage to the future.

There are high chances of them adopting new and dangerous crimes when they are put together with adults and this would create a new problem of its own. And they may be prone to mental and physical assaults. There will be no hope for their bright future and their life will never amount to anything but that of a criminal convict. In this long run of life, this would only damage the society and the life of a juvenile.

Most of the teenagers are driven into crime due to their peer pressure. However, no matter how old one is, murder and rape are not the crimes that are done out of their immaturity. Any teenager who tortures or kills a human being should not be treated as a child and left. If murder, rape and other heinous crime are committed by the youth under 18, why they should be treated differently? Why should they be treated preferentially?

If such heinous activities are still taken into consideration of their age, it will be an encouragement to the rest. So, depending on the gravity of the crime, juveniles should be treated as adults if the crimes they have committed are adult.

Juvenile’s Responsibilities and Rights

As we know, that the central idea of juvenile courts is to treat juveniles in a different way than adults. It is assumed that the young people have less responsibility for their acts and hence need protection. These courts were different from the other, as they are entitled to save the children from becoming criminals. Thus, it’s the act of handing over the responsibilities of the young from parents to special children courts. In this process, the courts took the roles of mother and father in caring for the young. From this, it is clear that informal procedures are followed in the juvenile courts.

The juveniles are entitled to the following responsibilities and rights:

The rights of the juveniles are:

Right to education.

Right to medical and mental health care.

Right to access to families and due process.

Right to have a safe and humane treatment.

The U.S. Constitution has given few rights to the youth which include the right to:

Freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

According to this right, the juvenile is subjected to right to basic care such as adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

Equal protection.

According to this law, juveniles cannot be discriminated on the basis of race or gender without a sufficiently legitimate government interest. Facilities should ensure that programs, services and privileges are provided equally regardless of residents.

Free exercise of religion.

The residents of juvenile have the right to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs. Courts have held that maintaining safety and security may constitute a legitimate or valid interest in this context.

Free speech.

The residents of juvenile have the right to freedom of speech. Facilities may limit resident speech, but only to the extent necessary to achieve a substantial governmental interest, such as maintaining security.

Right to Counsel

The juveniles have the right to an attorney. The youth involved in juvenile matters also maintain the right to counsel. The staff working in the courts is responsible for protecting the youth access to counsel, also allowing them to meet and speak by phone with their attorneys.

Staff in juvenile and officials play a critical role in keeping the youth safe, ensuring they receive services and protecting their rights. Their responsibilities range from providing youth with programming to maintain a safe, clean and humane facility environment.

The responsibilities of the juveniles include:

The children are believed to be not so responsive to the same extent of offence committed by adults. A separate time should be set aside for the juvenile offender and it is desirable to have a special judge for juvenile cases.

It is the responsibility of the juvenile to be present at any court hearing.

It is the responsibility of the juveniles to represent themselves by an attorney. If the juvenile cannot afford to hire an attorney, an attorney will be appointed to represent the juvenile.

If the juvenile is charged with a crime, he/she have the right to remain silent and do not have to prove their innocence. The state would prove them guilty. The responsibilities to cross-examine the witnesses and keep a record of their court files.

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