In 1899, the states of Colorado and Illinois created what was then known as Children’s Court. This idea was one that had spread to most states of America in the 20 years that followed, and the rationale behind them, driven by children’s right advocates and women’s organizations, was to treat and care for juvenile youths rather than punish miscreant behavior. However, the reality was that the resources to support this idea simply were not available at that time.
Today, the juvenile court system is facing a crisis, and is at risk of being abolished. This begs the questions, how can the juvenile court system be reformed, so as to perpetuate its existence in a way that is meaningful and effective to youth offenders and society at large?
The rationale behind the creation of a court established especially for children was that it was recognized that children needed to be treated differently to adults, given that their psychology is vastly different. According to the National Research Council (2013), “adolescents lack mature capacity for self-regulation” due to developmental reasons. This understanding has raised “doubts about the core assumptions driving the criminalization of juvenile justice policy”. Another reason for the creation of a Children’s Court was that, by placing children in a correctional environment with adults, this would only lead to the corruption of these youths, and result in further criminal behavior.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) called for a committee to convene to undertake a study in this area, its goal to review psychological research and identify implications for youth justice reform.
Since the 1960’s, both Republicans and Democrats alike have been unwilling to appear lax on issues of youth crime. Adding to this, the media have been responsible for generating a great deal of attention on the issue of juvenile offenders, taking isolated incidents and creating hype around them. The knee-jerk reaction to these two challenges has been for reformers to be tough on these young people, believing that it will deter criminal behaviour.
4. Proposals for Reforming Juvenile Court
There have been several proposals put forward in recent years to overhaul the juvenile court system, in an attempt to quell suggestions of its abolishment, help young offenders, and ultimately deter juveniles from committing crime.
One such proposal is to focus on the rehabilitative functions of juvenile court, rather than the punitive; rather than giving delinquents a slap over the wrist, so to speak, they instead partake in programs to help them learn valuable life skills, engage on counselling, and be provided with appropriate resources and services to assist them to become fully functioning members of society once more. Re-entry programs which focus on education and support are encouraged, as is parental and family involvement in the rehabilitation process.
Another proposal for reform of the juvenile court in America is the criminalization of such, which would give youth offenders “the procedural protections of adult criminal court” (Whitehead and Lab). Currently, defendants appearing before the juvenile court do not have the right to have their case heard by a jury of their peers. They are also not given the right to a public trial or to obtain bail. Adding to this concept is the proposal to rejuvenate the juvenile court system is to create a specialized youth justice system within the adult criminal court.
A restorative juvenile justice court is another proposal put forward by researchers. Restorative justice, as defined by Godwin (2001), “focuses on repairing harm and rebuilding relationships through a process that involves stakeholders in an active and respectful way”.
5. Broader Context
Any proposals to reform the juvenile justice system ideally should include efforts to minimise juvenile crime in a broader context. Firstly, researchers recommend that efforts be put into rebuilding communities. Secondly, race and racism, and their effects of juvenile crime, must be considered. Thirdly, young people who are likely to offend due to high-risk family situations; these families should be offered social support. These suggestions are all pre-emptive measures to reduce the overall rate of juvenile crime.
According to Krisberg (2005), “By now the evidence is clear: Small, community-based approaches that stress prevention, education, and restitution rather than prison-like punishment are simply better policy”.
The juvenile court system in America has been in existence for over a century. The impetus for the creation of a court designed especially for young offenders was the recognition that youths are not the same as adults, and thus should not be treated as such. Children’s rights advocates and women’s group led the way in the establishment of this type of court. In modern times, calls for the reform of these juvenile courts come in light of the desire of some to abolish them altogether. Challenges to reform include the tough stance that politicians take on the issue of youth crime, and the media generating a great deal of hype around isolated incidents. Proposals for reform include focusing on the rehabilitative function of juvenile court, the criminalization of juvenile court in order to provide offenders with procedural protections, the creation of a specialized youth justice system within the adult court, and applying restorative practises to youth court procedures. On a larger scale, researchers identify that areas such as family, race, and community all contribute to youth offending and should thus also be the focus of any efforts to reform the juvenile court system in America.
- Godwin, Tracey. The Role of Restoring justice in Teen Courts: A Preliminary Look. National
- Youth Court Center. 2001. Web. 11 December 2016.
- How do Juvenile Proceedings Differ from Adult Criminal Proceedings? Find Law. Web. 11 December 2016.
- Krinsberg, Barry. Reforming Juvenile Justice. The American Prospect. 2005. Web. 11 December 2016.
- Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. National Council Research. 2013. Print.