The reform of youth criminal justice is one of the most pertinent challenges of the system in the 21st century. The criminal justice system has to develop solutions for rehabilitation of youth with due regard to the special needs of this vulnerable group. In this essay, I will provide a baseline of current most pronounced shortcomings in juvenile justice, and then also discuss possible solutions to these challenges.
Youth offenders suffer from the lack of accommodation of the prosecution, prisons and courts to their special situation. Even though there have been some attempts to change the system in the recent years, youth still face fragrant over-incarceration, a disturbingly high risk of abuse in confinement, and stigmatization in society upon release. All these problems become even greater when youth are prosecuted in adult courts and placed in incarceration with adults. Treating juveniles like adults actually increases the risk of recidivism. Moreover, a 2011 study of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that the longer youth are incarcerated, the more likely they are to re-offend and commit a more serious and violent crime the second time. Thus, placing juveniles in adult prisons has a compromising effect on public safety and does little justice to ensure that youth can return to law-abiding lives.
Few disagree nowadays that juveniles must be offered solutions that differ from the way the criminal justice system treats adults. The debate revolves, however, around the choice of appropriate solutions. In my view, the best instruments and practices must prioritize community-based interventions and services with the reduction of incarceration terms and strong preference for other types of punishment. The purpose of juvenile justice must be to help offenders return to lead a law-abiding life as a normal member of society. While it is also a normal function of criminal justice for adults, in the case of youth, there is an even greater societal interest in rehabilitation and preventing juvenile offenders from recidivism. Thus, interventions that have a strong connection to the community, even including certain forms of punishment such as community works, are the most appropriate solutions that work in the general interest.
One specific instrument that has proven to be effective in the juvenile justice context is restorative justice. Restorative justice works towards achieving the offender’s understanding of the harm that was the result of the wrongful act. It is based on the conceptual premise that once the violator understands the wrongfulness and accepts liability for the crime, the risk of re-offending is significantly reduced. The process of restorative justice often involves mediation between the victim and the offender often through the facilitation of the community. Unfortunately, in the United States, restorative justice has found very limited application in the cases of juvenile offenders: it is rather seen as a supplementary means to the conventional process of imposing the punishment.
Many Western countries have recognized the value of restorative justice for youth and implemented its instruments to address the unfair treatment of youth offenders. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the law provides young offenders with a special Youth Offender Panel instead of a formal court that is responsible for arranging a number of different meetings between the offender and the victim and community representatives through mediation and reconciliation methods. I strongly believe that such instruments need to find their full application in the United States as well.
Overall, youth justice is in dire need of reform in the United States. Smart solutions to special needs of young offenders must be found in the application of restorative justice principles and instruments.
- Banks, C. Youth, crime and justice. Oxford: Routledge (2013).
- Liebmann, M. Restorative justice (1st ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2007).
- Mulvey, E. P. “Highlights from pathways to desistance: A longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders”. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2011). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/230971.pdf
- Myers, R. R., & Goddard, T. “Community-driven youth justice and the organizational consequences of coercive governance”. British Journal of Criminology, 53(2) (2013): 215-233.