Table of contents
- Historical Perspective on Juvenile Conviction and Moral Development
- The Establishment of Juvenile Courts and Shifts in Juvenile Justice
- Challenges in Differentiating Juvenile and Adult Court Systems
- The Role of Judges in the Juvenile Court System
- Controversies and Debates on Brain Development and Juvenile Sentencing
- Impact of Adult Court System on Juveniles and the Need for Rehabilitation
- Proposed Solutions for Reforming the Juvenile Justice System
- Works Cited
Historical Perspective on Juvenile Conviction and Moral Development
The United States is one of the few countries where minors can be transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult court system. When working with juveniles, the question tends to revolve around knowing right from wrong. The legal system wants to know at what age can they assume children have fully developed their moral compasses. However, the problem is that there isn’t a definite answer to this question. Children learn at different paces based on their environments (Martinez). When analyzing an adolescent’s brain, it becomes obvious the brain is not matured in areas that allow them to control impulses, effectively make plans, and avoid risky situations (Edgar). Having this knowledge, it would be unfair to treat a minor as an adult. However, as a society, the United States still tries juveniles as adults in the legal system. Convicting juveniles in the adult court system is ineffective in helping adolescents reintegrate into society.
The Establishment of Juvenile Courts and Shifts in Juvenile Justice
Throughout history, the question of knowing right from wrong has been difficult to answer, which has caused many changes in the United States government. The issue of convicting juveniles began in the late 1700s. In this period, the public viewed any child above the age of seven as capable of criminal intent. As technology advanced, individuals started to look at the issues surrounding violence and youth crime (Edgar). People began to rethink how they treat juveniles who commit crimes. Scientists revealed that adolescents did not have the same ability to process decisions as adults do. This discovery had a major effect on prisons and jails, separating juvenile and adult inmates in several facilities (“Children Tried as Adults”). However, at this point, adults and juveniles were still being tried in the same court system.
As adult court systems continued trying to accommodate juveniles, the Juveniles Court Act of 1899 was passed in Illinois. The act would create the first court system only for juveniles. The courts encouraged the rehabilitation of juveniles rather than punishment (Edgar). The juvenile court system would allow the state to distinguish between adolescent and adult sentences. In the years to follow, the court system spread throughout the United States and began to save many adolescents from being tried in the adult criminal system.
Challenges in Differentiating Juvenile and Adult Court Systems
In the late 1960s, the public started to question the system’s effectiveness in rehabilitating youth offenders. This resulted in several changes to the court system. In response, in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed. This act required all prisons and jails to separate their juvenile and adult detainees. The act strived to encourage public-based service opportunities rather than institutionalization (Edgar). Regardless, many citizens were still concerned that this would not be enough to control the youth offenders.
After the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act was passed, the public became worried that the court was becoming too lax. In an attempt to please their voters, state representatives took action (Edgar). Many states transferred specific classes of offenses from the juvenile court system to the adult system, resulting in juveniles facing an automatic waiver to adult court. Whether the adolescent was tried as an adult in many cases was decided by the state’s prosecutor (“Children Tried as Adults”). In my opinion, the idea of one individual sealing my fate is terrifying. However, this is too often the case when adolescents are waived to the adult court system.
In the beginning, it was difficult to differentiate between the juvenile court system and the adult court system. Currently, in most situations, the juvenile court system has jurisdiction over those under seventeen. Older teenagers are sent to the adult court system. The adult court system tends to focus more on the actual crime that was committed, not the individual who committed the crime (Hudson). This means that an eighteen-year-old can be treated the same as a grown adult, no matter the circumstances. The older criminal trials don’t acknowledge that there is a higher chance of rehabilitation and healing in minors (Martinez). I believe that this is a problem within the court system. For many people, including myself, it is hard to imagine sentencing a child who cannot even drive a car or vote as an adult to life in prison.
The Role of Judges in the Juvenile Court System
On the other hand, the juvenile court system tries to focus on why the crime was committed, not what the crime was (Martinez). This approach is a much better alternative when dealing with adolescents because it allows for discussion. A more conversation-based approach allows for the court to be a learning experience, rather than only a punishment. When there isn’t a chance to learn, there is a higher chance for repeat offenders who commit worse crimes. Therefore, education must be a vital aspect of the juvenile system.
In the system, a judge can either be a convict’s best friend or worst enemy. Several judges have been around long enough to form relationships with the adolescents who they work with. They know that the cases have much more to them than what appears on the surface (Bell). One Florida judge who works on juvenile cases stated, “I ask them why they did it and they say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I believe them” (“Children Tried as Adults”). A judge has a very important role within the juvenile court system. They have the job of looking over the case while recognizing the juvenile’s family life, living environment, and room for potential growth within the adolescent (Martinez). Most importantly, these judges must see past the mistakes that a child made on the worst day of their life.
Controversies and Debates on Brain Development and Juvenile Sentencing
As the topic has been an issue of debate for a while, there are multiple points of view. Almost everyone can agree with the statement that a child’s brain isn’t as developed as an adult’s brain (“Children Tried as Adults”). However, there is disagreement with how the legal system can tell when the brain is fully developed in order to properly try a person. The reality that citizens of the United States often forget is that many people struggle to find their identity until their twenties (Scialabba). With an undeveloped sense of self, I believe that concluding a person’s goodwill is nearly impossible.
There are a great amount of controversy surrounding juveniles given life sentences without parole. Professor Wayne A. Logan, who has written about adolescents’ lives without parole, states, “Life without parole can be considered as a death in prison or penultimate sanction” (Hudson). I have always been a believer in hope and optimism. However, an adolescent who has been served a life sentence has little to nothing to hope for. They do not have the opportunity to improve their character or amend their errors. Many believe that if the function of the juvenile system is rehabilitation, it is vital to look at the success of the adolescents charged as adults. During their time in prison, minors have a high risk of witnessing or experiencing violence, abuse, and sickness (Scialabba). They become an entirely different individual. Their childhood is ripped away and they become a robot in the system. Research has proven that juveniles prosecuted as adults are 82 percent more likely to be rearrested when released (Scialabba). With this data, I cannot find a decent reason why an adolescent should be charged in the adult court system.
Once waived into the adult court system, juveniles are impacted in various ways due to long delays, pre-incarceration periods, exposure to hardened adult criminals, and juveniles being denied services. There has been researching that revealed adolescents in the court system have increased rates of trauma, depression, suicide, and psychological disorders (Martinez). By witnessing so much violence and trauma within prisons, juveniles often find themselves dealing with psychological disorders, such as anxiety and PTSD (Edgar). Minors’ mindsets and actions are affected by income and feelings of community within their environment. If a minor is in a low-income or impoverished household, it can often create stress while they are incarcerated (Martinez). The majority of state jails have a requirement to screen adolescents for mental health disorders, but many prisons have a gap between their procedures and intervening (Edgar). As a society, the United States must take strides to change the narrative because all children deserve the chance to have a good quality of life.
Impact of Adult Court System on Juveniles and the Need for Rehabilitation
Often, families are kept away from the court process within adult court systems and cannot guide their children. The distance causes emotional and mental harm to both the family and children (Martinez). This is damaging to children who need their families for stability and emotional support. It creates an environment where the child is feeling scared and alone. A 16-year-old admitted into an Alabama prison has seen extreme violence and has been threatened multiple times sexually and physically. He has learned to never let his guard down or relax. “They really get lost in the system,” said Michelle Stephens, whose son was prosecuted as an adult and incarcerated in Florida five years ago after accepting a plea agreement. “And all their inmate peers become their family. They join gangs in prison. They’re worse off than they were before they went in prison” (“Children Tried as Adults”). In most adolescent cases, those who enter the adult justice system do not improve their behavior (Martinez). Immersing juveniles in an environment where any role model is a hardened criminal is in no way a good idea.
After serving their sentences, many people have a false idea that juveniles can continue the life they were forced to put on hold. This is not the case at all. Many missed their opportunity for education, and it will be very difficult to obtain a job (Scialabba). However, there are several solutions to the epidemic that is taking over the juvenile system. Many people believe that prevention is key to stopping the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” (Martinez). Early intervention can promote the development of a moral compass and allow children to grow in maturity and responsibility. Research has proven this to be the most effective approach to eliminating juvenile delinquency (Scialabba). Although, the justice system must begin to focus on prevention, not locking away juveniles.
Incarcerated juveniles who are given the possibility of parole remain hopeful. They believe they have another chance. Knowing this, the youth spend time in prison to obtain skills and rethink the way they act (Hudson). Emphasis must switch back to what is best for the adolescent when juveniles are charged with a crime. They need resources to help them succeed once they are released, instead of being locked up in an adult prison (Scialabba). A valuable resource to have is available education and neighborhood-based healing approaches that are meant to be a different choice than the court systems. Another solution is to alter educational funding to offer more culturally appropriate learning within all different types of ethnic and income groups. Communities should also make sure that there is an equal spread of education and learning materials (Martinez). Every child deserves the same opportunity to succeed in life.
Proposed Solutions for Reforming the Juvenile Justice System
In order to help families, the United States must create support systems for relatives as they explore the court system and teach them how to navigate it. For those without a support system of relatives or allies, it can be extremely difficult and harmful because families are a key aspect of rehabilitation (Hudson). In history, minors who are sentenced as adults take a much longer time to reform. However, some juveniles never can reform (Edgar). Jeff Bell, a retired police officer, says, “I believe that rehabilitation is valuable when dealing with young kids in the system. I have been working in criminal justice for over 15 years and we (police officers) all know that kids aren’t getting by sitting behind bars for life. They deserve a second chance” (Bell). Rehabilitation is incredibly important, especially with juveniles, because making errors is all a part of growing up. Adolescents should be allowed to grow and learn from their mistakes.
As a society, the United States must reform the court system because it is a disaster. America needs to go and sweep up the problems within the legal system in order to create an atmosphere where one crime will not define a child for the rest of their life. Convicting adolescents within the adult legal court system has been proven to be unsuccessful in helping adolescents improve and mature. America should be focusing on programming, rehabilitation, and improving the lives of impoverished at-risk youth. When a community gets together, it becomes easy to fix big problems. I believe that if there is a child sentenced to life in prison, the citizens of the United States have a duty to rise up and speak out for the child who is not able to.
- Bell, Jeff. Personal Interview. 17 Feb. 2019.
- “Children Tried as Adults Face Danger, Less Chance for Rehabilitation.” Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC, 30 Oct. 2014, www.splcenter.org/news/2014/10/30/children-tried-adults-face-danger-less-chance-rehabilitation. Accessed Feb. 15, 2019.
- Edgar, Kathleen. 'Crime and Punishment.' Youth Violence, Crime, and Gangs: Children at Risk, 2004 ed., Gale, 2004. Information Plus Reference Series. Student Resources In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ3011390106/SUIC?u=assumptionhs&sid=SUIC&xid=f0ed6aa6. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
- Hudson, David L. “Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Is Life without Parole Unconstitutional for Juveniles?” ABA Journal, vol. 95, no. 11, 2009, pp. 16–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27849640. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
- Martinez, Martha. “Juvenile Injustice: Charging Youth as Adults Is Ineffective, Biased, and Harmful.” Human Impact Partners, Feb. 2017, humanimpact.org/hipprojects/juvenile-injustice-charging-youth-as-adults-is-ineffective-biased-and-harmful/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.
- Scialabba, Nicole. “Should Juveniles Be Charged as Adults in the Criminal Justice System?” Should Juveniles Be Charged as Adults in the Criminal Justice System?, American Bar Association, 3 Oct. 2016, www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/childrens-rights/articles/2016/should-juveniles-be-charged-as-adults/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2019