This is particularly important when making decisions about court processes and sentencing practices in the juvenile court. The ability of youth to recognize that sanctions will drastically increase in the adult system is ample reason to justify the use of punishment in the juvenile system.
Under a model that focuses on punishment, sentencing will need to be harsh enough to deter the youth from continued behavior but not so harsh that it increases the likelihood of future acts. If juvenile detention centers and community-based programs emphasize human assets and place stigma on those who commit crimes a decrease in recidivism may occur (Levitt, 1998). Sentencing considerations will now shift to an offense-based system, one in which the nature of the act rather than the youth himself become the basis for determination of appropriate consequences (Ash, 2006).
Intervention in crimes will need to be consistent in arrest, the court process, corrections, probation, and community oriented programs if a focus on punishment is really going to deter youth from committing additional acts of violence. Law enforcement personnel will need to enforce laws consistently and equally rather than relying on personal discretion when making arrests. At times law enforcement officials will attempt to give youth additional chances before referring them to the court system but this will only increase the likelihood that their behaviors will escalate as they view their actions free of consequences. This is also true for probation officers who will need to effectively implement regulations regarding what constitutes a violation and under what circumstances this violation should result in incarceration.
Community oriented intervention programs will need to reevaluate their approach to dealing with youth who commit crimes. The current focus of community interventions has been to look at youth offenses through the lens of a social problem that can be rectified through community based interventions (Chamberlin, 2001). This model loses sight of the need for punishment and causes problems for youth who eventually transition into a punitive adult system (Chamberlin, 2001). Current community based approaches only widen the disparity between the juvenile and adult systems. Additionally, these programs do very little to dissuade youth from reoffending or from offending in the first place (Chamberlin, 2001). In order to truly be effective, these programs would need to not only target re-offenders but all youth who have committed crimes. Historically, these programs have been situated in low-income areas with the belief that these youth do not have access to other resources, but it does not effectively provide services to those who do not live in these disadvantaged communities.
There are several arguments against the use of punishment when dealing with juvenile offenders starting with the increased costs associated with incarceration in correctional facilities, as well as the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of punitive strategies in preventing future crimes (Ash, 2006). There is also evidence to suggest that harsher punishments may in fact increase the likelihood of recidivism and the severity of crimes (Ash, 2006). There have also been several arguments about the immaturity of adolescents in relation to their ability to make sound decisions about committing crimes (Ash, 2006). The belief is that due to the reduced decision making capabilities of youth their culpability is severely reduced and sentences should reflect their true abilities. However, it is also true that if youth are determined to have the same decision making capabilities as adults then they should be subject to the same punishments as their adult counterparts. When looking at it from this perspective one must contemplate that if the punishment must fit the maturation and developmental stage of the youth then it may need to be coupled with therapeutic or alternative intervention strategies to ensure a change in behavior and a reduction in recidivism.
Opponents to punishment of juvenile offenders state that juveniles should be found guilty less frequently and receive less severe punishments than adults for the same crimes due to their developmental immaturity (Fontaine, 2008). This concept of developmental immaturity claims that adolescent decision making has not reached the capacity of adults, adolescents are more susceptible to the influence of others, and the character of an adolescent has yet to be fully formed (Fontaine, 2008). Due to these differences between adolescents and adults, they should not be held to the same standards of behavior and therefore consequences should be lessened. These beliefs have called for a shift in focus from punishment of juveniles to their rehabilitation.
Despite this opposition, it is clear that if enforced consistently across all aspects of the justice system, punishment is the most effective way of deterring juveniles from engaging in continued criminal activity. This is especially evidenced by the ability of youth to curtail their behaviors if they are reaching the age of maturity in a harsh adult system vs. The increase in behaviors of those in a lenient system. Regardless of the system in which juveniles are tried, less emphasis on discretion of the correctional personnel and more on the consistency of sanctions is the best approach to treatment of juveniles who engage in criminal acts.
There still appears to be no crystal ball to solve the problem of juvenile delinquency, however, the treatment of this population continues to be a vital issue on the national social policy agenda (Schaeffer & Borduin, 2005). This in part can be attributed to the rising social and economic impact that can be observed from this population. While public policy continues to be aimed at increasing transfers from juvenile courts to adult courts and harsher sanctions for youth who commit serious violent acts, public opinion continues to support the need to enhance treatment and rehabilitation programs for juvenile delinquents that would eventually lead to community reintegration.
There appears to be no single approach to treating juvenile delinquents and all intervention strategies that have shown effectiveness have included a multi-faceted approach. Among other suggestions are the implementing of better screening tools to identify potential at risk juveniles sooner and developing preventative strategies to stop the progression of violent behavior as well as progressive intervention strategies that address offending behaviors at different developmental pathways.
Ash, P. (2006). Adolescents in adult court: Does the punishment fit the criminal? Journal of American Academic Psychiatry Law, 34(2), 145-149.
Chamberlin, C. (2001). Not kids anymore: A need for punishment and deterrence in the juvenile justice system. Boston College Law Review, 42(2), 391-419.
Fontaine, R.G. (2008). Social information processing, subtypes of violence, and a progressive construction of culpability and punishment in juvenile justice. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 31, 136-141.
Kulpchick, A. (2003). Prosecuting adolescents in criminal courts: Criminal or juvenile justice. Social Problems, 50(3), 439-460.
Levitt, S.D. (1998). Juvenile crime and punishment. Journal of Political Economy, 106(6), 1156-1185.
Remschmidt, H., & Walter, R. (2010). What becomes of delinquent children? Results of the Marburg Child Delinquency Study. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 107(27), doi:10.3238/arztebl.2010.0477.