Juvenile Justice: Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

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In the 100+ years since the first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899, American laws toward juveniles have fluctuated greatly. The past 50 years alone have shown an ebb and flow in the punitive handling of juveniles within the criminal justice system. Civil libertarians argued for alternatives to incarceration in the 1960s, but by the 1990s, 31 states had expanded their sentencing options to allow juveniles to be charged as adults. Today, we remain wedged between those same two schools of thought.

Juveniles in the Criminal Justice System

According the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable foundation dedicated to disadvantaged youth, the juvenile incarceration rate declined to its lowest level in 2010 after peaking in 1995. The racial disparity has not changed however, with African-American youth being five times more likely to be confined to facilities in comparison to whites. Latinos and American Indians have a juvenile incarceration rate two to three times higher than that of whites.

Of all minors in the system, 25% have been charged with a violent crime, such as homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, or sexual assault. These individuals have the possibility of being tried as adults if the juvenile court judge initiates a waiver process on his or her own volition or at the request of the prosecutor. Repeat offenders with a previous criminal background or a history of failed rehabilitation in the juvenile criminal justice system are also candidates for a waiver. The waiver eliminates the protections of juvenile court and transfers the offender into the adult court system.

Transfers to the Adult Courtroom

Minors being transferred to adult court typically have the right to legal representation and a waiver hearing, during which the onus is on the prosecutor to prove probable cause. The only exceptions are those who are on the older end of the age spectrum and/or have committed an especially heinous crime, like murder or rape. These individuals can be automatically transferred and must request a reverse waiver hearing to try to change the judge’s decision.

Arraignment and Proceedings

Juveniles transferred to the adult criminal justice system are arraigned, as with any other adult court case, with standard proceedings to follow. Some will argue that arraignment is to the youth’s advantage in that he or she will receive a trial by jury, unlike juvenile court. There is also the possibility that prison overcrowding in some jurisdictions might warrant a lighter sentence.

The other side of this debate is that minors tried as adults are subject to much harsher penalties if convicted. This argument is somewhat deflated since the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 2005 for those who commit an offense prior to turning 18. In 2011, the Court went a step further in defense of juveniles by barring sentences of life without parole.

Opponents to juveniles in the adult criminal justice system also state the danger of young people serving time in adult prison.  The negative impact of having an adult criminal record when the individual transitions back into society seeking education or employment opportunities is also an argument against trying minors as adults.

The Case for Age Considerations

While most states require that a minor be at least 16 years of age to be transferred, some will try a child as young as 13 as an adult. Other states, such as North Carolina, are trying to raise the minimum age to 18. This decision is based on adolescent psychology and research that shows the brain of young adults is not fully developed until an individual is in his or her 20s. The younger brain is operating from the lower levels of the pleasure center, which drive the adrenaline rush that comes from risky behaviors.

American culture seems to have a pervasive optimism that prevents writing any child off as a lost cause. This attitude may continue to transform a juvenile criminal justice system that has been in a state of flux since the 1800s.







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Laura Mingo

Laura Mingo writes in the field of higher education. This article aims to offer career advice for university students in relation to criminal justice and promotes the benefits of advanced study regarding an online criminal justice master’s degree.

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