The purpose of this paper will be to examine the juvenile court system and whether or not abolishing it is the practical thing to do. To start off with, I will give a brief history of what the juvenile court system consist of and what it was designed to do. Next I will go into both sides of the debate to determine whether or not to abolish the juvenile court system. We will first take a look at the two concepts of the juvenile court system. There is the welfare model in which you help the children, and then there is the due process model in which the children have rights. There are also some issues about how to alter the system. Should a few things be changed, or should the juvenile court system be changed completely?
On the other hand you have people saying that these two concepts can’t work together and that the only option is to abolish the whole system all together. We will first take a look at the history of the juvenile courts. The Juvenile Court System began in 1899, and it is now over 110 years old. The Juvenile Court System started in Chicago, Illinois. It was then known as the “children’s court, with jurisdiction over dependent, neglected, and delinquent youth” (office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention).
When the court first started it had a wide range of problems that were dealt with; these included issues such as child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, divorce, runaways, truancy, and many others. According to the Ojjdp (1999) the first juvenile court was established to help youth, and with the belief that the whole community had the responsibility to help these children. This type of court system spread through the United States, and not long after, every state had similar courts. Then in 1966 the courts adopted a model of due process. This made them similar to adult courts, but alternative punishment and treatment opportunities were utilized.
II. Position A
The first side of this issue I want to talk about is what the juvenile court concepts are and how they have been working so far; and though some change
may be needed, completely abolishing the system is not the right way to go. When the court first started it was all about the children. It was designed especially for youth to help them with their unique needs in mind. This court is not just for offenders. Neglect and abuse cases are heard in juvenile court, as well as adoption and termination of parental rights cases. All of this is done with the child’s best interest in mind. The OJJDP article on “an Evolving Juvenile Court” (1999) goes through seven things to celebrate during the evolution of the juvenile court. I will briefly discuss these. * The first achievement is the fact that the courts recognized that youth require separate treatment.
* The second is the step toward family court where the court didn’t only deal with the juvenile, but also with the other family members. * Third is the treatment of each juvenile as a unique individual. * The fourth was the introduction of the medical model. That is a model that looks at alternative treatments for juveniles. * Fifth they celebrate the idea of alternative methods of dealing with related legal issues. * Sixth is the fact that they turned away from putting children into institutions, and toward keeping families together and helping the families deal with difficult situations. * Seventh the leadership shown in the judges that first ran these courts helped these courts evolve. Recently there has been a shift toward a more punitive function of the juvenile justice system. It now mirrors more of the criminal justice system and the adult courts.
According to Cindy S. Lederman (1999) article The Juvenile Court: Putting Research to Work for Prevention, juvenile crime is down. Looking at the data, adults are responsible for most the violent crimes that are committed. She also states that it is not that today’s youth are committing more crime, but they are just being arrested more. This shift toward a more punitive punishment has made it harder for judges to administer sentences in a therapeutic setting. Children are now being transferred at the age 14 to adult court for committing a serious felony. The alternative options that where considered before are now not being considered as often. There is also now a stronger pull toward harsher and longer prison sentences. There are very few differences now between the criminal justice system and the juvenile court system. The cornerstone of the juvenile court according to Cindy Lederman is “adjudication culminating in individualized dispositions and based on the need for accountability and the best interest of youth and society.” In other words the individual needs of each child and the best interest of the child should be the foundation of the court.
The juvenile court was created to be unique from that of the criminal court. It sought to use rehabilitative measures instead of punitive, it would keep the records confidential, it kept the children out of adult facilities, and the proceedings could be very informal (Wetzstien 1999). Robert G. Schwartz from the Juvenile law center puts it this way; the reason that this system has lasted for over 100 years now is because it has been built on two main beliefs “1. Youth are not as culpable for their conduct as adults and 2 that youth are more capable of change and need room to grow.” Some people say that this way will not work anymore and a punitive juvenile court system similar to the adult courts is the only action. The problem with this is that people are looking for a one dimensional solution to a multi dimensional issue of youth crime. Abolishment of the juvenile court system does not have to be the answer. A little tweaking of the system back to a more welfare model and an attempt to balance the punitive model with the welfare model, what people are now calling a restorative justice model, could do the trick to solve some of the issues.
The main issue is the fear the public has about youth crimes and violence. In the beginning, the courts started a lot of the cases in which parents were brought in, and they tried to keep things “in the family” so to speak. Now days with this shift to a punitive measure, the family is often blamed and deemed unable to help the juvenile change. This could be an area where if we could go back in time and help the families deal with their issues, we could help balance the welfare and punitive models of the justice system. According to Wetzstein (1999) rehabilitation and alternative measures for youth crimes work and have been becoming more popular among juvenile court judges. The following are some examples of these programs. There are specific drug courts for juveniles with drug problems, there are teen courts where their peers get to weigh in on the issue at hand, and there are “unified” family courts that deal with all of the different family issues that are brought before the court.
There are programs that have the offender deal with the victim of their crime and try to make things right. There are also teen boot camps. All of these programs exist as part of the rehabilitation side of the courts, and have many success stories to their credit. If we can get these juvenile offenders in one of these rehabilitation centers as soon as they start offending there is a strong chance that they can turn their lives around and make something of themselves. The proof is in the fact that kids can make it.
Many juveniles come out of these centers and go on to live respectful, law abiding lives. In an article from the Connecticut post, Abby Anderson executive director of the Juvenile Justice Alliance stated that juveniles under 18 who are incarcerated with adults are more likely to become chronic offenders than those who are treated as juveniles and are placed in a rehabilitation program. The children place in rehabilitation centers are given the chance to learn how to turn their lives around instead of being deemed hardened criminals with no hope of lasting change.
III. Position B
Now on the other hand is the position that the juvenile court should be abolished, that the welfare model and the punitive justice model are incompatible and will never work together, therefore the only answer is to completely get rid of the juvenile system and have only a criminal justice system where age will be taken into some consideration. According to Barry Feld(1999) the concepts of a welfare system and one of a punitive system are never going to be able to work together there is just no way to have a true balance between these two concepts. There has been a trend in the juvenile courts to move toward a more punitive measure; to get tough on the kids to try and stave off the fears the public has about juvenile violence. Feld (1999) argues that the welfare model gives too much discretion to the judges who hand out punishments. Also he says that the rehabilitative programs do not work and kids are just seemingly getting away with crime in this kind of welfare model.
Feld (1999) states that “at the worst, judges will impose haphazard, unequal, and discriminatory punishment on similarly situated offenders without effective procedural or appellate checks” when referring to a welfare model for the juvenile justice system. The main argument in Feld’s position is that combining the juvenile court with the criminal court is that age will still be a factor in determining sentences. They would also take into account the defenses of insanity and infancy. Meaning that if the accused is sane and in their right mind when they committed the crime; and if they old enough to realize that what they did was wrong and are able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, they would then be sentenced accordingly. It is common knowledge that an adolescent’s brain is not fully developed and that they think and reason in different ways than adults do. Based on this information alone it is clear that age would have to be a mitigating factor in sentencing those juveniles who are under 18.
The reasoning behind not having a separate juvenile criminal court is the fact that there would be no rationale to distinguish it from the adult criminal court or “real court” as Feld refers to it. The only way the court systems can work coherently together is to have one single court system that recognizes an adolescent is on a developmental continuum and can affect the way they act and how they think. The reasoning behind a juvenile’s actions is therefore different than the reasoning of an adult.
Also Feld states that having this integrated court will provide stronger protection and justice to juvenile offenders than what they receive now in the juvenile justice system. The social welfare model provides three things for the juveniles that pass through the system. It provides hope for the children, it tries to reduce racial and social inequality, and this model also tries to reduce access to and the use of fire arms. All three of these are far beyond the resources of the juvenile justice system and therefore another reason to abolish the system.
Both of these positions provide good sound arguments for their sides. In this section we will take a look at the data for these positions and look more closely at the conclusions that are stated on each side. PBS Frontline has cited some statistics for juvenile crime. The following statistics are taken right off their website. * Juvenile crime is at its lowest since 1987 and has fallen 30% between 1994 and 1998. * Fewer than half of serious violent crimes by juveniles are reported to law enforcement and this has remained the same over the past 20 years. * The rate of serious crimes committed by juveniles peaked in 1993 and by 1997 has declined to its lowest point since 1986. * Juveniles were only involved in one fourth of all the violent victimizations annually over the last 25 years.
* Juveniles accounted for 16% percent of all violent crime arrests and 32% of all property crime arrests in 1999. * They accounted for 54% of all arson arrests, 42% of vandalism arrests, 31% of larceny-theft arrests, and 33% of burglary arrests. * Juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes are down: the percentage of all juveniles arrested for violent crimes fell to an 11 year low in 1999, to 339 for every 100,000 individuals ages 12-17. This represents a 36% drop from the peak year 1994. * The juvenile system does work: a 1996 Florida study found that youth transferred to adult prisons had approximately a 30% higher recidivism rate than youth who stayed in the juvenile system. The point of reciting all these statistics is to show the way the juvenile justice system works now. The statistics show that crime is down and that the rehabilitation centers for juveniles work more effectively than the adult prison systems do.
In all the articles read there seems to be no hard statistics to support the abolishing of the juvenile justice system. Numbers is what is meant by hard statistics. A lot of support for this position is based on theory and claims that allegedly could be true. Without hard evidence these claims provide no real basis to believe change is needed, and it is difficult to fully get behind these changes. Looking strictly at the evidence shows that keeping the juvenile justice system would be the best decision. The evidence shows the juvenile court systems as it exists leads to a reduction in crime and recidivism rates.
V. Author’s Position
I believe that the juvenile court system should stay as is. Abolishing it would be a huge mistake. If you look purely at the statistics you will see that the juvenile justice system is working. Juvenile crime is at its lowest. Violent juvenile crime is down as well. A welfare concept is needed when regarding juveniles and juvenile justice. If we were to abolish the juvenile courts there would be no place for cases about neglect, custody, or adoption cases to be heard. Abolishing the juvenile court would cause the adult courts to look just at the criminal aspects of these kids and then deal with just those aspects. Adult courts do not take into account all the other kinds of cases that the juvenile courts deal with. This alone would be reason enough to keep the juvenile court system. The adult criminal courts are not equipped to deal with such neglect and abuse cases or to deal with foster care or adoptions, or any other types of cases that do not involve juveniles committing crimes. The criminal aspect of the court is a very small part of what the juvenile courts deal with.
There is some talk that getting rid of the juvenile courts would save a lot of money. Personnel could be downsized, and there would be no need to pay for special facilities for kids; whether for incarceration or rehabilitation programs. The states would therefore supposedly save money. This however is not fully true. If a child is caught while they are still young and can be rehabilitated, the costs of incarceration could be drastically cut down. Future costs could also be theoretically cut down if these juveniles do not become adult offenders. In other words if you spend the money now to catch and rehabilitate offenders while they are young, the end results will actually save money because future crimes would be prevented.
Also with a combined justice system it would be a lot easier for kids to fall through the cracks and not get caught or punished for their actions. This would just encourage them to commit more crimes. Adolescents as well as adults for that matter have a mind set that if you get a way with it once you can probably do it again and again and not get caught. Just purely cracking down on juvenile crime would have some benefit by sending a message that they can’t always get away with things just because they are not adults.
The evidence shows that the kids who are placed in rehabilitation programs are 30% less likely to commit another crime than those who are locked up with adult criminals. This is one of the greatest things about the adolescent brain there is still a chance to help adolescents because the brain is not fully developed yet. It takes a lot less resources and there is a lot more success when kids that have maybe only committed one or two offenses are rehabilitated. It is much more difficult and expensive to rehabilitate a hardened adult criminal. You hear it all the time that kids are our future; in this case that statement is true. If we can stop kids from committing crimes and stop them from turning to a life of crime our adult crime statistics will go down as well, that is just simple math. Stop them when they are young and we won’t have to deal with them when they are older, we will have more law abiding citizens that can bring positive contributions to their communities.
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