Some of the main points discussed in the readings emphasize the existence and the positive consequences of alternative dispositions for juveniles. Being equipped with labeling theory, these approaches try to focus on the fact that the traditional juvenile justice system results in more harm than good (The Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1999). Traditional justice system might only reinforce delinquent behavior due to the stigmatization of teenagers that are usually highly vulnerable to external influences. Peer court, which is an alternative disposition, is thus more youth-oriented and humane, if compared to juvenile courts.
One of the advantages of peer courts is its potential in terms of decreasing the recidivism rates. Empirical studies demonstrate that the levels of recidivism are usually half smaller among those individuals who have been sentenced by peer courts than those by traditional juvenile courts (Smith & Chonody, 2010). It is important to note, however, that some studies do not support this fact (The Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1999).
There is no agreement in terms of the effect of peer courts on future recidivism rates. Different studies show contradictory findings. Therefore, a meta-analysis of existing studies is needed to acquire a better understanding of the real long-term effects of this alternative disposition. It addition to this, it might be helpful to conduct a large-scale study with a mixed method research design to obtain reliable data regarding the issue.
However, it is arguable whether or not peer courts are indeed a good solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency. More specifically, they remove some of the consequences of the problem instead of addressing its root. Teenagers are not the only age group that suffers from the ineffective criminal justice system in the United States. Whilst youth as the most vulnerable group might be affected to the bigger extent, the fact that labeling of criminals is an unsolved issue that leads to high recidivism is also applicable to other age cohorts. For instance, in their book The Hard Journey Home – Real Life Stories about Reentering Society Sheila Rule and Marsha Rule (2011) show the obstacles that former criminals face when trying to reenter society whose norms they had once broken. Prisons in general do not teach criminals the needed social skills and ways to live in society-at large, they mainly teach them how to live in prisons. In the meantime, whilst society expects former criminals to act in accordance with the law and socially accepted norms, it often does not provide them with the economic means to do so because it automatically ‘labels’ them. Therefore, society, should decide whether its aim is to punish criminals and cause damage to their lives or, with the help of alternative disposition, to give them the opportunity to become involved in social networks and labor market, and thus decrease the level criminal recidivism. The examples of several countries, including Sweden, Finland, and Norway demonstrate that a more humane approach to criminals than the one that is common in the United States has the potential of bringing about the needed changes to the practice of the punishment of crimes.
Therefore, whilst peer courts indeed might increase juvenile delinquency, they only address a small segment of a much bigger problem of criminal justice system. Labeling theory is helpful not only in terms of explaining high recidivism rates among young individuals, but also among other age groups. The respective reforms in the criminal justice system, such as the integration of some elements of the restorative justice, bring hope that the problem of juvenile delinquency will be resolved together with the problem of high rates of recidivism among the whole population of criminals in America.
- Rule, S., & Rule, M. (2011). The Hard Journey Home: Real-Life Stories about Reentering Society after Incarceration (1st ed.). Resilience Multimedia.
- Smith, S., & Chonody, J. M. (2010). Peer-Driven Justice: Development and Validation of the Teen Court Peer Influence Scale. Research On Social Work Practice, 20(3), 283-292.
- The Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (1999). Diversion Programs: An Overview. NCJRs. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/9909-3/div.html.