American Juvenile Justice System

Subject: Law
Pages: 14
Words: 3653
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: College

Youth crime has been increasingly on the rise over the past years. It is caused by numerous factors, ranging from social inequality to the influence of popular media. As young people are integrated into criminal justice, they are faced with harsh realities of consequences for actions which could influence their whole life. Therefore, it is important that the juvenile justice system uses a competent and fair approach to punishment of youth. Juveniles should not be sentenced as adults or housed in adult prisons. When juveniles commit egregious crimes, they should undergo evaluation, assessment, minimal confinement and enter into rehabilitation programs that provide treatment or offer opportunity for personal development.


Juvenile delinquency is a highly controversial and emotional topic which leads to challenges of confronting it. The issue of juvenile justice is inherently complex, with risk factors for delinquency interconnected. The causes of juvenile crime may range from mental health issues and lack of stability or attachment to problems at home and at school leading to violence, trauma, drug use, and family history of criminal behavior. The primary problem explored in this paper is the commonality of youth tried as adults, thus resulting in harsher punishments and integration into the adult penal system despite the juvenile justice system being established as a separate entity decades ago.

Defining Juvenile

When faced with the term juvenile, most assume it applies to individuals that are under the legal age of adulthood (commonly 18 years of age) in the jurisdiction. Therefore, this should apply to the juvenile justice system. However, the legal definition of a juvenile is complex, nor is it fixed or universal in criminal justice systems. It depends strongly on the historical, ideological, and political developments of youth justice models and institutions. The concept of creating a separate juvenile justice system is based on the premise that youth are generally less culpable than adults, thus more susceptible to rehabilitation. Thus, they should be kept away from difficult and punitive conditions of the adult penal system. The policy establishes an age for juvenile courts based on age or a presumed maturity (Abrams, Jordan, & Montero, 2018).

Another aspect to consider is the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) that identifies the minimum age at which an individual can be held accountable for crimes and the Age of Criminal Majority (ACM) when a person can be prosecuted with the full force of the law, subject to adult penalties. The United States has generally symbolized efforts to lower ACM in most states to 16, with some states setting precedent of transferring youth to adult systems as young as 12 given appropriate circumstances.

This greatly contrasts with European countries which attempt to promote extending the ACM and often provide protections for young people for several years afterward, allowing adult courts to waive individuals back to the juvenile system (Abrams et al., 2018). This greatly aggressive tactic in the United States is problematic and causing significant issues for rehabilitation attempts and recidivism rates.

Juvenile Justice History and Statistics

The first elements of the juvenile justice system in the United States began to emerge at the end of the 19th century as urbanization led to high rates of youth crime. The standard was to severely punish such crime and give long prison sentences, which appalled early reformers. The idea behind the creation of the juvenile system is based on the theory that youth benefits more from care and direction rather than isolation and punitive measures. The institutional legitimacy of the juvenile court took hold with the consideration that it is partially the responsibility of the state to act as a parent, particularly for those children without proper support structures, such as orphans or children from troubled families (Tanenhaus, 2018).

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was much public concern and debate regarding the juvenile system as it was viewed as ineffective. The Supreme Court made a series of rulings, including Kent v. the United States which identified that juveniles were not provided rights that adult criminals would have nor given the adequate protections and rehabilitative treatment that a child should have. In 1967, on the case of In re Gault, the Supreme Court expanded rights of minors facing charges.

In 1969, another Supreme Court case that the standard of evidence and conviction “beyond a reasonable doubt” must be applied to juvenile courts as well, which was not done beforehand. The 1975 case of Breed v. Jones establishes protections of youth against double jeopardy, particularly when it plays a role in the transfer to adult courts. The 2005 case Roper v. Simmons determined that it is unconstitutional to sentence minors to the death penalty. However, there is some differentiation between juvenile and adult courts, such as McKeiver v. Pennsylvania established that jury trials and some other adult constitutional rights are not applicable to minors (Meng, Segal, & Bogden, 2013).

After the softening of juvenile penalties in the mid-20th century, violent crimes continued to increase which led to a significant turnaround in the 1990s. States began to pass strict punitive laws, such as mandatory sentencing and blanket transfers to the adult penal system. This trend continued for some time, and only recently is the public and expert opinion beginning to support rehabilitation-focused practices again (Meng et al., 2013).

In 2017, there have been approximately 809,700 juvenile arrests made, which is at approximately 2,400 per 100,000 persons aged 10 to 17. This rate is 59% lower than a decade ago and demonstrates a 5% annual decrease (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2018). Overall, juvenile delinquencies have been decreasing, particularly for violent crimes.

Policing Perspective



Handling of Juveniles

A range of scientific research has identified that youth and adults have developmental differences and needs. This affects decision-making processes, which is more susceptible to lack of impulse control and peer pressure for youth. Research also shows that punishing young people with similar severity as adults does not promote successful rehabilitation or protect public safety. With maturity, youth will be less likely to engage in recidivism with appropriate resources.

Implementing adult-level punishments extends incarcerations which lower the opportunity for rehabilitation outside the penal system. Youth involved in the criminal justice system commonly come from difficult families and neighborhoods, experiencing or witnessing a wide range of violence and trauma. Incorporation into the adult penal system presents a further risk of aggravation for youth by creating the risk of sexual abuse, assault, and even suicide. It also leads to a denial of access to essential programs and rights such as educational counseling that can impede their re-entry into the communities and fundamental development needs (Juvenile Law Center, n.d.).

A significant concern in the handling of juveniles, a reflection of the adult system, is the extent of racial, ethnic, and economic discrepancies and discrimination for youth delinquents. Certain minority groups are overrepresented in the early stages of processing in the juvenile justice system which is concerning. Despite the African-American population compromising only 14% of the US population, black youth were involved in 36% of the delinquency cases (Claus, Vidal, & Harmon, 2017).

This is the effect of what is known as disproportionate minority contact (DMC) which is the context of police arrest and further processing of minorities in the penal system. While contextual factors such as poor socioeconomic environments and lack of educational attainment may contribute to the disproportion, it does not fully explain the phenomenon. The symbolic threat theory which suggests that racial stereotypes and profiling lead to the greater exposure and contact of minorities with the justice system.

In turn, DMC leads to significantly different handling of youth cases in court. Legal factors depend on crime severity, as discrepancies are more evident in minor crimes. For example, black youth are more likely to be formally processed, charged, and placed in correction placement than white youth for minor drug-related offenses. Racial and ethnic minority youth are more likely to receive harsher penalties such as being committed to a correctional facility or charged as an adult (Claus et al., 2017). This suggests that the handling of youth delinquents is both disproportionate and intentionally targeted towards minorities to place harsher punishments on them rather than promote rehabilitation.

Actions and Applicable Laws

Approximately 16,000 youth at any given time are locked in juvenile facilities without sentencing, with some not yet having a trial while others are awaiting disposition, essentially being held in prison without being committed (Sawyer, 2018). This is already a worrying trend which inherently allows for abuse of the system that forces youth to be transferred to the adult system without oversight or conviction or to be incarcerated for relatively minor offenses such as a technical violation or status offense.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice has been taking concrete steps at evaluating alternatives to incarceration and supporting a wide range of state and community programs which offer opportunities for delinquents. The OJJDP has published guidelines for law enforcement and courts to follow to prevent unjust incarcerations, racial discrepancies, and transfer of minors to the adult system. In cases where incarceration is necessary, the OJJDP is exploring the options and effectiveness of reentry services to ensure a fluid transition to society (Calleja, Fisher, & Fernandez, 2016).

Minimum age laws, referring back to ACM, exist in 18 states which prohibit youth to be tried as adults and therefore undergo incarceration in adult prisons (Barnert et al., 2017). The legal Supreme Court cases discussed earlier outline the fundamental legal rights around juvenile cases which must be followed to ensure the Constitutional rights of the individuals. It has been recognized on numerous occasions by the highest court of the country that youth should be considered less blameworthy than adults, thus able to achieve rehabilitation, a court decision which should set precedent for lower-level courts (Juvenile Law Center, n.d.).

Otherwise, there are no legal frameworks or national laws guiding the juvenile justice process and incarceration. Procedures and sentencing are determined by the courts based on the socio-political trends and cannot be effectively reviewed or overturned without a long and complex court battle. A lack of appropriate legislation and transparency in the juvenile system is greatly concerning as it often leads to instances of harsh penalties and youth tried as adults. Furthermore, as described earlier, it creates a possibility for the abuse of power by courts and juvenile detention facilities which cannot be regulated without a proper legal framework.

Long-Term Effects

The most prominent argument for juvenile transfer to adult court and incarceration is public safety to ensure full accountability in accordance with the full letter of the law which is applied to adults. For particularly violent and egregious crimes, the public believes that strengthening sanctions will guarantee the prevention of recidivism. However, most people fail to consider long-term impacts on youth having to undergo transfer to adult court and imprisonment, which can be significant.

Extensive research demonstrates that juvenile adult incarceration is largely ineffective at reducing future criminal behavior or recidivism, potentially increasing it as juveniles face abuse, challenges, and criminal influence in the adult penal system. Most experts universally agree that lacking the opportunities and a support system in place in adult prisons, juveniles are more likely to experience negative outcomes, the likes of which are recidivism and re-arrest (Loughran et al., 2010).

The effects of juvenile to adult transfer extend beyond criminal justice and influence area. Evidence demonstrates a significant reduction in stability and earning potential later on in life, even if educational attainment was similar (quality of education was not examined). However, being processed through the adult system leads to a public adult criminal record that often restricts most job or educational opportunities (Taylor, 2015).

Youth are not provided required rehabilitative services in the adult system, which causes both, limitations on a healthy social and emotional development, as well as understanding the severity of their crime. Furthermore, juveniles are at a significantly higher risk in adult penal systems, facing dangers of sexual victimization or assault as statistically proven. As a result, they may be faced with lifelong trauma which will influence their mental health. Youth incarceration with adults leads to loss of liberty and identity with numerous restrictions on their ability to become wholesome human beings and responsible citizens later on as they become tethered to the criminal justice system (Gilman, Hill, & Hawkins, 2015).


The extent of punishment for juvenile delinquents has been largely dependent on public opinion, which is often based on misinformation and stereotypical portrayals of young violent offenders. Public policy discussions have been inconsistent over the decades, ranging from supporting rehabilitation to implementing harsh adult punishments. It is vital to determine a balanced solution that would present an adequate level of consequence while offering protection and opportunity for change for minors. Research indicates that reducing ACM and introducing lenient regulation is more effective in managing juvenile crime than harsh punishments and adult incarceration which are directly linked to recidivism later in life (Munyo, 2015).

Procedure and Sentencing Review

The first solution is meant to demonstrate a very passive approach that does not inherently implement any changes but shows a symbolic effort to resolving the issue. A review of sentencing and procedure protocols is warranted given that juveniles which are transferred to adult courts are given longer incarceration sentences or harsher terms of punishment (Lehman, Chiricos, & Bales, 2017). The latest trend of diverting youth away from the court system has failed to improve the process of formal prosecution of juveniles. This leads to a number of problems including a lack of quality legal representation, poor understanding of the court process by the defendant and their family, as well as vulnerability to the harsher sentencing options based on the circumstance.

The increased power given to juvenile courts to deal with young offenders will inherently impact the rest of their life. It is vital to ensure that an effective system of checks and balances exists to monitor these powers. Introduction of administrative review mechanisms that review cases and provide safeguards and protections for youth delinquents will ensure a fairer process of due trial and impact sentencing (Allison & Armitage, n.d.). In turn, this can prevent unjust decisions which lead to juveniles tried as adults or facing disproportionately harsher penalties.

Alternative Punishments

Introducing alternative punishments to incarceration and adult trial would be an incremental approach in creating a resolution to the issue. A wide variety of alternative methods have been proposed by experts, law enforcement, and policymakers, with many of them focusing on rehabilitation and guidance to prevent recidivism of crimes. Such mechanisms provide a greater focus on helping the young person to understand the weight and consequence of the crime, enable therapeutic processes to deal with any mental or emotional challenges which led to the crime and help to focus on greater integration into the community.


Evidence-based practice demonstrates the effectiveness of therapy with youth, particularly those displaying opposition and conduct issues. Family therapy is helpful as an alternative punishment to incarceration as it helps for stronger family integration and ensuring stability. The sessions attempt to improve relationships and communications, which often play a role to some extent as the reason why the crime was committed.

The therapy approach focuses on empowering youth on realizing their errors and affect the change in their own lives. Some goals of therapy include mitigating risk factors and eliminating antisocial behavior (Karam, Sterrett, & Kiaer, 2015). The court can oversee this alternative punishment by ordering therapist evaluations and mandatory weekly sessions which must be followed to prevent incarceration.

Community-based Approaches

As more evidence emerges regarding juvenile delinquency and there is growing public concern regarding the conditions that youth experience in incarceration, community-based programs have emerged as an appropriate and humane alternative. This approach seeks to introduce local community programs which focus on treatment-oriented initiatives and rehabilitation. They provide homelike and non-correctional environments aiming to help youth find their way.

Such programs are well-supervised and have strong supporting staff, offering small, peer-led services. These programs highlight community service as a method of giving back to the community as a manner of payback for the committed crime. Youth development is also at the core of such programs, helping to create leadership experiences and opportunities to grow, both personally and academically (McCarthy, Schiraldi, & Shark, 2016).

Policy Change

Public policy has historically had a profound impact on the juvenile justice system in the US. Therefore, competent and widespread policy change, ranging from national to state and local levels is the most drastic solution out of all of them. Despite a recent trend of a more adjunctive approach, the US juvenile system remains largely punitive, with strong measures toward violent crime offenders and minorities. A solution would be to reform policy to focus on a restorative justice approach as it is successfully done in Europe and Australia. While in the US restorative justice takes second place behind punitive measures, in other countries it has become a statutorily mandated measure.

Restorative justice is a process where stakeholders and parties involved in the offense attempt to collectively resolve the aftermaths of crime. It is an inherently dialogic nature of justice, focusing on sentencing circles and victim-offender mediation. Restorative justice forces juveniles to reflect and engage in conversation and solution, positively impacting the development process and rehabilitation (Artello, Hayes, Muschert, & Spencer, 2015).

Implementing restorative justice into policy is a challenging process, particularly in socio-political environments where it is not widely accepted. Restorative legislation must balance the needs of the community with those of the offender. The most effective mechanism would be to include restorative provisions in statutes or penal codes that could be used to influence and guide juvenile court intents and practices.

Furthermore, hinging the evaluation of all levels of the criminal justice system on restorative justice as a method to determine funding eligibility may be effective as well. While the OJJDP strongly encourages and attempts to provide coordination of alternative responses, including restorative justice, to juvenile delinquency, it still remains only an agency which provides recommendations. It is vital to pass federal legislation, led by the US Department of Justice, which would set national standards for juvenile justice reform and shift the general trend towards restorative justice. Finally, it is important that restorative justice principles are clearly articulated in state law, ensuring a balanced approach and promote aspects of juvenile accountability (Pavelka, 2016).


Trends in the Justice System

The juvenile justice system has been undergoing rapid reform over the last decade in the attempt to depart from harshly punitive measures of the 1990s which influence policy and court decisions to this day. Policy makers in national and state legislations are attempting to rebalance approaches to youth delinquents and improve the overall quality of the justice system. A number of initiatives are being proposed as policy including restoring independent jurisdiction to juvenile courts and divert youth away from the system.

The trend is to implement responsible fiscal accountability and promote distribution of resources that would enhance community alternative and seek better outcomes. Furthermore, the importance of risk factors and mental health is more recognized as both a causative factor and consequence of juvenile crime, leading to investment in appropriate response services. Finally, comprehensive efforts are being made to address racial disparities in the national criminal justice systems at all levels as the country faces an identity crisis regarding racial discrimination which reflects on the juvenile justice system as well (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2015).

Biblical Worldview

The Bible says “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30: 18-19, New International Version). Christianity views God as the pinnacle of justice, fully gracious, righteous, and graceful. God is able to manifest grace, mercy, but also toughness and being able to teach a lesson to those that deserve it. Applying Christian perspectives to the justice system has been done historically, and the United States, as a predominantly Christian country, has deeply involved religion in the process.

However, the recent trends of overcriminalization and harsh incarceration have deviated away from Christian principles. The biblical worldview suggests that human beings are not perfect, and deserve justice and mercy, with lives worthy of respect. The relationship between man and God should be fostered by cultivating morality and virtue. Religion stands for just causes of eliminating social inequality which is often the cause of crime and advocates for proportional punishment and rehabilitation (Eckman, 2017).

Introducing spirituality into the juvenile justice system as part of the method to assist social workers and other staff can significantly improve the well-being of youth. A diversity of religious practices, led by Christianity, can become proven coping mechanisms for the young people as well as structure the nature and ultimate objective of the correctional system. For example, historically, the Catholic church offered biblical guidelines to justify and determine the punishment for each behavior.

The guidelines can potentially aid juveniles in comprehending their actions and consequences of the punishment (Villa, 2016). While the modern justice system is a state entity, separate from religion, many principles of compassion, forgiveness, and spirituality can be utilized for the purpose of reform for the system and rehabilitation of youth.


Juvenile justice is a complex and controversial topic. It is particularly difficult to address when crimes are repeated or highly violent. Youth should not be sentenced or punished as adults, allowing for the opportunity for rehabilitation. It is evident that although there are attempts being made to improve the juvenile justice system, it is still broken and often has negative long-term impacts on young lawbreakers. It is better for society and the criminal justice system to ensure that juvenile justice is reformed through competent policy and efforts are made towards the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders which would prevent them from entering the adult criminal system.


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