Broad Judicial Discretion Regarding Juvenile Delinquency With Focus on the Future of Juvenile Justice Term Paper

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Future Role of the Juvenile Justice System in the United States

Young people are naturally prone to experimentation and impulsive behaviors that frequently result in their involvement with the law enforcement community, and police officers today generally enjoy wide latitude in resolving these incidents. In fact, in some if not most cases, police officers can release young offenders into the custody of their parents or guardians without the further involvement of the criminal justice system. Even when young offenders are arrested, though, the juvenile justice system tends to afford them with more leniency than their adult counterparts, due in part to the view that the role of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate rather than punish. These enlightened views of juvenile justice, though, are being replaced with "get-tough-on-crime" approaches in some states, and there remains a paucity of standardized models for states to follow. To gain some fresh insights in these areas, this paper reviews the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning current and future trends in juvenile justice in the United States, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

The view that young criminal offenders should be treated differently is not new. During the 20th century, this view became refined with respect to how young people, or more precisely juveniles, would be adjudicated within the larger American criminal justice system. In this regard, Black's Law Dictionary (1991) defines juveniles as "a young person who has not yet attained the age at which he or she should be treated as an adult for purposes of criminal law; in some states, this age is 17 years. Under the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, a 'juvenile' is a person who has not yet attained his 18th birthday" (p. 867). The term "minor" is specifically" distinguished from "juvenile" by this criminal justice system context. For instance, Black's adds that, "In law the terms juvenile and minor are usually used in different contexts; the former used when referring to young criminal offenders, and the latter to legal capacity or majority" (1991, p. 867).

During the early era of the juvenile justice system, youthful offenders were regarded as being so many "little adults" who were subjected to the same types of harsh punishments that were meted out to adult offenders (Pasko, 2010). According to Pasko, "By the late 1800s, increases in immigration, urbanization, and industrial jobs heightened poverty and subsequent societal concerns. Poor became synonymous with delinquent, as poor and neglected children often turned to criminal activity as a means of dealing with familial neglect and abandonment" (2010, p. 1099). Despite a lack of timely evaluations concerning the effectiveness of these approaches to adjudicating youthful offenders, empirical observations and increasing experience with the outcomes of these "little adult" approaches were deemed unsatisfactory over time. In this regard, Pasko notes that, "Because incarceration with adult offenders did not seem to deter youth from criminal behavior, reform schools -- Houses of Refuge-were founded. Their primary intent was to provide discipline and education to incorrigible youth who lacked desirable character -- to save these children from themselves and their surroundings" (2010, p. 1100). In reality, the Houses of Refuge and a separate juvenile justice system represented some of the changes that were taking place in larger American society during this period in history. According to Pasko, "The movement to create separate institutions for juvenile offenders was part of the larger Progressive movement that, among other things, was ardently troubled about social and moral evils, such as promiscuity and prostitution. Spearheaded by privileged women, the child savers' movement and the establishment of family courts provided an opportunity for these women to patrol the normative boundaries of the social order" (2010, p. 1100). These increased oversight even introduced some significant differences in the definitions that were applied to young male and female offenders. For instance, Pasko adds that, "Whereas the first juvenile court originally defined 'delinquent' as those under sixteen who had violated a city ordinance or law, when the definition was applied to girls, the court included incorrigibility, associations with immoral persons, vagrancy, frequent attendance at pool halls or saloons, other debauched conduct, and use of profane language in its definition" (2010, p. 1101). Notwithstanding these gender-based differences, the reform movement itself was intended to include all young offenders. According to Klein (1998), "Progressives in the late nineteenth century pushed for reform everywhere in the criminal justice system. The Progressives looked to move away from the punitive and toward a rehabilitative ideal, especially with regard to the correction of delinquent children and adolescents" (p. 373).

One group of Progressives known as the "child savers" concentrated their resources on identifying and addressing the causes of delinquent behavior among juveniles which demarked the point at which the juvenile justice system in the United States shifted from the "little adult" model to one that recognized the basic differences between youthful and adult offenders. In this regard, Klein notes that, "The child savers viewed juvenile offenders as a group in need of care and guidance, not punishment" (p. 373). The child savers promoted a juvenile justice system that could provide care for troubled youth who were without alternatives. For instance, according to Creeden, "The juvenile justice system was akin to a social agency, the parens patriae, or 'parent of the country' with power to watch over youth who incapable of protecting themselves" (p. 120). The goal of the juvenile justice system during the early part of the 20th century was to help young offenders rather than punish them. In the majority of cases, juvenile proceedings were not criminal trials but were rather informal hearings (Creeden, 2004). In sum, "Children were treated differently from adults who broke the law" (Creeden, 2004, p. 120).

The landmark case in American juvenile justice is In re: Gault, a case in which the Supreme Court examined the issue of whether a juvenile system which used informal hearings to adjudicate juvenile offenders was fundamentally constitutional. In the In re: Gault case, the Supreme Court held that "juvenile hearings were similar to adult criminal trials because the hearings might result in confinement. Therefore, an absence of constitutional guarantees deprived juveniles of a fair hearing" (Creeden, 2004, p. 120). In re Gault, Justice Fortas articulated the interests of these early reformers in changing the American juvenile justice system thusly:

The early reformers were appalled by adult procedures and penalties, and by the fact that children could be given long prison sentences and mixed in jails with hardened criminals. They were profoundly convinced that society's duty to the child could not be confined by the concept of justice alone. They believed that society's role was not to ascertain whether the child was 'guilty' or 'innocent,' but 'What is he, how has he become what he is, and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career.' The child-essentially good, as they saw it -- was made 'to feel that he is the object of [the state's] care and solicitude,' not that he was under arrest or on trial. (quoted in Klein, 1998 at p. 373)

In its supporting rationale in re: Gault, the Court reasoned that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to juvenile proceedings and that juveniles are due these basic constitutional rights:

1. Notice of the charges. There must be written notice of the facts in time to prepare for the hearing.

2. Right to counsel. The child may hire an attorney or have one appointed.

3. Right to remain silent. The child does not have to testify and an involuntary confession cannot be used as evidence.

4. Right to confront witnesses. There must be sworn testimony to support a ruling and an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses (Creeden, 2004, p. 121).

Although the foregoing are similarities with the adult criminal justice system, there remains some differences in how young offenders are adjudicated compared to adult offenders, and many find themselves treated as harsh or even more harshly compared to adult offenders by a juvenile justice system as a result. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the juvenile justice system was regarded as being more lenient on young offenders for a wide range of legitimate reasons, many of which remain applicable today. After all, young people do stupid things and some of them do them over and over until they learn their lessons. In this regard, Klein (1998) emphasizes that, "Historically, Americans have viewed juvenile delinquents as less culpable than adult offenders. Therefore, the juvenile justice system has theoretically focused on the care and rehabilitation of the child rather than on punishment and incapacitation" (p. 371).

In response to increased perceptions of youthful violent crime in general and gang-related activities in particular among the American public, lawmakers across the country revisited these alternative approaches for young offenders to determine if they remained relevant during this period in American history. According to…[continue]

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