The juvenile justice system in the United States is much like the adult justice system, with a few important differences.

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When “juvenile” offenders – those under the age of 18 – commit a crime, they are treated a lot like an adult would be, in similar circumstances such as being told what they are charged with, have the right to an attorney and remain silent, as well as question witnesses (Juvenile Crime, 1998, p. 2c). Historically, the juvenile justice system did not exist until the 1800s, so children who committed crimes were charged and convicted just as adults were (p. 2c).

One of the most significant differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems is that the juvenile system is much more open to the idea of “ways to rehabilitate the youth” (p. 2c). This type of thinking evolved from an outbreak of juvenile crime from 1988 to 1992 of more than 50 percent, when “get tough” programs began failing at an alarming rate (p. 2d).

In order to promote the effectiveness of rehabilitation, it is necessary for the juvenile system to have a probation and aftercare program, working closely with the justice system. According to Altschuler and Armstrong (2001), reoffense rates among juveniles who were previously detained and then released were very high, and “ranged from 55 percent to 75 percent” (p. 72). This is why the Justice Department conducted and funded development of an intensive aftercare program for high-risk juvenile offenders (p. 72-3).

The hope of these programs is to provide a structured, supervised re-entry into main society to prevent the chance of reoffending. Probation includes meeting with a probation officer for a specified number of times per week or month, to ensure the released juvenile is complying with drug testing, school attendance, and possibly counseling orders issued by the court (Altschuler & Armstrong, 2001, p. 73).
However, the adult system of probation and parole is very different, largely because when adults fail to follow orders issued by the court, these offenders are immediately reincarcerated. Further, the focus on rehabilitation in the juvenile sector is largely ignored in the adult probation and parole systems (p. 73). Although both systems are set up to increase the chances for successfully reintegrating released offenders into society, the adult system is seen as more of a punishment instead of the helping system the juvenile justice system has.

An example of this helping system is one in Georgia, where the juvenile justice system is attempting to overhaul itself. There, a juvenile would never go straight to jail for a criminal offense, but instead – be placed into one of the programs established to help juveniles and their families (Cook, 2013). Because of the success rates of these programs in Georgia, and a survey that showed 90 percent of residents only wanted “higher-risk, dangerous juveniles locked up” helped changed the legislature’s mind, as well (Cook, 2013). Unfortunately, for most adults, reintegration systems do not exist unless the released offenders fall into one of very few special categories such as legally disabled, a military veteran, or in a state-mandated mental health program (Cook, 2013).

Overall, the juvenile justice system has some good services in place throughout the country to help offenders avoid jail and punishment, while still providing them with vitally necessary services. Although many in the country used to believe harsher punishments were better, and treating children like adults was the best way to accomplish such a task, over the past few decades this old-world way of thinking has changed. Hopefully, as the juvenile justice system evolves to move even further away from the similar-seeming adult justice system, children will be rehabilitated first – and only punished much later, as a final resort.

  • Altschuler, D. M., & Armstrong, T. L. (2001). Reintegrating high-risk juvenile offenders into communities: Experiences and prospects. Corrections Management Quarterly, 5(3), 72. Retrieved from
  • Cook, R. (2013, Mar 20). Georgia’s justice system: State targets help over jail for kids: Proposal aims to get nonviolent offenders the services they need. The Atlanta Journal – Constitution. Retrieved from http://
  • Juvenile crime and punishment: A look inside America’s juvenile justice system. (1998, Dec 04). Current Events, 98, 2a-2d. Retrieved from