Juvenile Justice in the United States

For my research paper, I decided to study juvenile justice in the United States and how certain aspects differ in other countries. I felt that this would be a good topic to research because many countries do things completely different from one another. Not all follow the same procedures and laws that we do.

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Because of this, I thought it would be interesting to see how a few select countries handle juvenile delinquents compared to our legal system and to see which are the harshest in terms of punishment. To begin, I will break down how the United States handles most cases concerning juveniles and how they go through the justice system, followed by the different ways other countries may do things.

Before I start, I thought it would be good to define what juvenile delinquency is as well as give a brief overview of what makes this a problem. Our text defines juvenile delinquency as a violation of the law by a person; Violation of the law by any youth which is handled by juvenile courts; by juvenile court jurisdiction; whatever the juvenile court believes should be brought within its jurisdiction; violation of and state or local law or ordinance by anyone who has not yet achieved the age of their majority (Benekos, Champion, Merlo, 2016). Basically, juvenile delinquency is a problem because youth break the rules with little consequence. They learn that they will receive light punishments simply because they are young, and this makes them think it is acceptable. This often leads them down a dark path that ultimately lands them in jail.

In the U.S., we see juveniles as the next generation. They are our hope for a better future. So, when many decide to commit crimes and break the law, we treat them far differently than the average criminal. Why do we do this? The answer is simple. We have to look at their potential for rehabilitation. They are less blame worthy and they have a greater capacity for change. Most youths commit misdemeanors and petty crimes. The majority of these crimes do not merit jail time. For those that do, a lighter sentence is often given in hopes that the offender will see the error of their ways and understand that change is needed to better themselves. Adults who commit crimes are often past this point, not caring about rehabilitation and focusing solely on what they want. They are much harder to reach and will often return to crime.

The first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois in 1899. By the mid-1920s, every state in the country had established a separate system of criminal justice designed to acknowledge those differences called the juvenile justice system. Originally, the court process was informal”often nothing more than a conversation between the youth and the judge”and the defendant lacked legal representation. Proceedings were conducted behind closed doors with little public or community awareness of how the juvenile court operated or what happened to the children who appeared before it. Rather than confine young people in jails with adults, the early juvenile courts created a probation system and separate rehabilitation and treatment facilities to provide minors with supervision, guidance, and education (Juvenile Law Center, 2018).

With these newly established juvenile courts came obstacles that needed to be addressed. Many youths who were placed in juvenile facilities were kept there for extended periods of time, often much longer than was necessary. This was a deprivation of their liberties. In 1967 during the case of In re Gault, the U.S Supreme Court decided that the Constitution requires than any youth who is charged in court with a form of delinquency will have many of the same due process rights as adults who are accused of the same crimes. These rights include the right to an attorney and the right to confront the witnesses who testify against them.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, juvenile crime rates rose at an alarming rate. In order to combat this increase, legislators pushed for a tough on crime system that would take away many of the justice system’s protections. This was the start of what I believe was a step in the right direction. The increase in crime was caused because juveniles began to understand that the justice system was going to work with them and go easier on them. When they met this new, tougher system, they began to see that the citizens and the courts are not going to take it anymore and that we would hold them accountable for their actions. It is my wish that we as a country do much more of this.

Now I would like to look at a few different countries to see how their ways of dealing with youth offenders may differ from the United States. After doing some research, I have found several countries that are completely opposite from what we do here, ass well as several that are very similar.

Norway will be my first country to discuss. Unlike the United States, Norway is considered to be one of the most lenient towards juveniles. As stated by Brandon Johns (2018), an author for A Medium Corporation,

In Norway, the minimum age a person can be held criminally responsible is 15. Incarceration of juveniles in the country is used only as a means of last resort. This is limited to juveniles with serious behavioral problems, repeat offenders, and those who commit serious crimes. Juveniles of last resort in Norway can be imprisoned for up to four weeks with the possibility of one renewal up to 12 months. Only eight juvenile offenders in Norway are currently imprisoned. All eight for serious offenses. All eight still have real chances of release upon completing rehabilitation.

Norway uses their prison system to focus solely on rehabilitation, whereas the United States has a strong focus on punishment as well. This humane approach in Norway has knocked their recidivism rate down to 20%. That is over 50% less than the U.S. Maybe their way of doing things has an up side to it. The US remains the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. In Norway, there are no life sentences [and that goes for all age groups]. Prison sentences can only be extended to life in Norway if a prisoner fails to rehabilitate [which is very rare] (Johns, 2018).

Germany is my next country that I will examine. They are very similar to Norway in how their juvenile justice system operates. Youth justice in Germany covers juveniles and young adult offenders from 14 to 20 years of age. Here, all cases involving youth under age 21 are handled in youth court, and although judicial discretion is applied, most cases result in juvenile sanctions, especially those involving more serious offenses. Germany relies more on fines and community-based sentences instead of just prison sentences. Major law reforms in 1953, 1990, and 2008 emphasized diversion and educational and restorative justice measures. Prison time is kept to a minimum by not imposing prison sentences of less than six months and by making ten years in prison the maximum penalty that can be meted out. Juvenile offenders are never imprisoned together with adults, and the youth prisons are staffed with personnel with educational expertise.

Of the three countries that I have discussed, there is but one main difference that separates one from the rest. The United States is the only country in the world that condemns people to spend their lives behind bars for crimes they committed before they turned 18 (Knafo, 2017). Many feel that this is because other countries are too lenient on juveniles and that they do not punish them harshly enough because they do not want to have the burden of incarcerating them for long periods of time. Others say that we as Americans are far to cruel and that we do not care to rehabilitate our youth in order for them to reach their usefulness.

Personally, I do not feel that we are strict enough on our youth. We have kids running around disrespecting our country and the people who fight to protect it because they think they are untouchable. We as parent let our kids run wild because we are too lazy and too tired to deal with them. As a result, we lose control of them. Many quit spanking their children because today that is considered child abuse and parents can be reprimanded for it. Now we focus on how our children are feeling and what is causing their behaviors. We have lost the spine that made us the greatest country on the planet.

I remember my father telling me stories of how he was paddled in school for misbehaving, and when he returned home, he often found grandpa waiting with his belt in hand ready to make sure he did not act up again. Is this too much for a child to endure? Some may feel it is. Did my father learn to behave in school and anywhere else he was? Absolutely. I myself felt knows the feeling of receiving a belt whooping. No, it is not enjoyable, and it is not meant to be. Fearing the consequences is what helps keep kids on the right path. When we take that fear away by coddling them and letting them have their way, then we are failing as parents and as a country. We are creating the very people we are trying to stop.

In conclusion, even though the rest of the world sees us as a country that is too hard on our youth, it is my opinion that we are not hard enough on them. There is a reason our kids act the way they do. There is a reason the crime is so much higher than it used to be. We as a country need to start holding people accountable for their actions and deliver a just punishment that fits the crime. We lack in so many areas that it makes us as a country look weak. Our education system is sub-par at best because kids do no try in school anymore since they can look everything up on their phones. Our justice system has become more of a joke because we let these rule breakers off with a slap on the wrist instead of a true punishment. How long until we are truly lost to the people we helped create?

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