The juvenile justice system has been controversial since its beginning. However, there are many studies that have shown that juveniles are better off in juvenile facilities than adult prisons or jails. When a juvenile is suspected of a crime, they are tried in a juvenile court, unless a judge passes the case over to an adult criminal court. A judge may do this based on a few factors, including the juvenile's age, prior offenses and the seriousness of the crime. There are many reasons to have different justice systems for adults and juveniles. One reason is that adolescents' brains are still developing and thus they might not be able to understand the consequences of their actions, unlike adults. Another reason would be that juveniles put into adult prisons or jails are not better off, due to their increased risk of suicide and possibly sexual assault. These juveniles are often not provided an education while they are in adult jail or prison, making it harder for them to adjust to the community again once they are released. A study conducted in Florida revealed that there is a lower recidivism rate for juveniles placed in a juvenile facility when compared to juveniles in adult prisons, proving that the juvenile justice system is at least somewhat successful in rehabilitating juveniles.
The nation's first juvenile court was established in 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. Judge Richard Tuthill understood that "kindness and love for the children must be used" when handling cases with young defendants. When 11-year-old Henry Campbell was charged with larceny in 1899, Tuthill put his judicial philosophy to use by sending Henry to live with his grandmother, rather than being sent to jail with much older criminals (Grossman, 2014). Since then, the juvenile justice system has changed and developed significantly. However, there is some controversy as to how effective the juvenile justice system really is. To move towards an end to this controversy and to fully form my own opinions as to why the juvenile justice system is effective, I have compiled a list of questions that should be answered first, which are as follows:
Answering these questions should help clarify why I believe that the juvenile justice system is effective for juvenile delinquents, even though the system could use some improvement.
In order to be tried in a juvenile court, a youth must be considered a juvenile under state law. This age varies for each state, but in the majority of states a person is not eligible for juvenile court once he or she is over 18-years-old. Many states consider a minor under 7-years- old to be incompetent to stand trial due to not being able to distinguish between right and wrong or even forming a mens rea, or "guilty mind." In these states, children under 7-years-old are not punished, but their parents may be fined for damages caused by the child. In general, the judge handling the case determines whether a minor 7-years-old or older is capable of forming a guilty mind. In most states, however, a minor 14-years-old and older is said to be able to form a guilty mind and competent to stand trial (Michon, 2015a)
In contrast, a judge is able transfer a juvenile to an adult court through a process known as a "waiver." To be tried as an adult, the judge considers some factors involved in the case. One factor considered is the seriousness of the offense. Serious offenses like murder will obviously be looked at differently than minor offenses. Also, a minor with a long juvenile record shows that previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor were unsuccessful, which means that more steps should be taken in order to prevent that minor from committing another crime. Of course, the age of the minor is also considered when transferring a minor to an adult court (Michon, 2015b).
Personally, I wish more states had a set age in which a child is no longer competent to stand trial. In the very least, states should mandate that a child under 6-years-old cannot form a guilty mind and thus cannot be tried in a juvenile or adult criminal court. On the other hand, I agree there are some juvenile cases which are better off in an adult criminal court. Some offenses are so serious that trying the suspect in an adult criminal court is the responsible thing to do. I also agree that if it is apparent a minor with a lengthy juvenile record is not being helped by the juvenile justice system, other options should be tried. I knew a few teenagers who went to my high school who were known for getting in trouble with the law. I had heard about some of the things they did, such as stealing cars, selling illegal drugs, and getting into many fights. After getting into trouble so many times, I could not understand why some of them were not sentenced to jail. It was clear to me that the juvenile justice system was not working for them.
The juvenile justice system was created with the philosophy that juveniles should be treated differently than adults. Developmental psychology has proven to be very useful in the juvenile justice system and it has helped validate this philosophy. In recent years, studies have proven that the adolescent brain is biologically different than an adult's developed brain (Juvenile Law Center, 2011). Due to their undeveloped brains, adolescents have different decision-making skills and thought processes when compared to adults. This affects a child's competence to stand trial. Because of all this, I believe it makes sense that youth go through a different process when arrested for committing a crime.
However, thousands of minors have been sentenced to adult prisons nationwide. In the United States, close to 3000 minors have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, which is hard for me to imagine. It does not make sense for a young child or even teenager to be put in prison for the rest of his or her life. There are currently 14 states with no minimum age for trying minors as adults (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014). Based on what we now know about developmental psychology, I would think that more states would be willing to impose a minimum age for trying a child as an adult. For example, trying a 9-year-old as an adult for murder does not make any sense to me, since the child most likely does not fully understand the consequences of his or her actions.
Minors who are put into adult jails simply do not do well. Juveniles held in jails have a significantly higher risk of suicide than those put in juvenile facilities (Flaherty, 1980). These minors may also have a higher rate of sexual assault by other inmates. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that among 16- and 17-year-olds placed in adult jails and prisons, 4.7 percent of them reported sexual abuse (Goode, 2013). However, this percentage is said to be low, since many minors may feel uncomfortable or unsafe acknowledging their abuse. Some studies even suggest that minors are up to five times more likely to be sexually assaulted while in prisons than minors in juvenile facilities (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014).
Youth in adult facilities are often denied educational services. A survey found that 40 percent of adult jails provided no educational services, while a mere 11 percent provided special education to inmates (Campaign For Youth Justice, 2012). This is extremely harmful for youth placed in adult jails due to the increased difficulty this creates for youth adjusting to the community once they are released. Unlike juvenile facilities, adult jails and prisons do not focus on rehabilitation. Youth placed in adult jails or prisons are there for punishment purposes and there is no real attempt made to rehabilitate them. Considering all of these factors, it is clear to me why there should be different justice systems for juveniles and adults.
Since the juvenile justice system is supposed to focus on the rehabilitation of juveniles, it is imperative that it does just that. A study conducted by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice showed that minors transferred to adult prisons had roughly a 30% higher chance to commit another criminal offense in the future than minors who were kept in the juvenile facilities (Bishop, Frazier, Lane, & Lanza-Kaduce, 2002). This proves that the juvenile justice system successfully rehabilitates many minors, but, in my opinion, there are still far too many minors coming out of the juvenile justice system who end up committing more crimes.
It is my belief that if the juvenile justice system was more heavily funded, then more focus could be put on rehabilitation and the recidivism rates would be lower for minors in a juvenile facility. More funding would mean more money going towards rehabilitative and educational resources within the juvenile justice system. Through these resources, juveniles could get an education, learn career skills and receive mental or substance-abuse treatment. In summary, I firmly believe that the juvenile justice system is effective and, despite its low funding, juveniles are much better off being tried in a juvenile court than an adult criminal court.
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