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Individuals who commit offenses at, or below the age of 18 years (the majority age) are tried and judged in juvenile courts. The juvenile justice system refers to the network of agencies dealing with the juveniles, who conduct themselves in contravention of the law. These include: prosecutor, police, courts, detention, probation and the Department of juvenile Corrections. The first Juvenile court, having been established in 1899, was meant to deter delinquents from future illegal conducts. Prior to this, juvenile delinquents were placed together with adults. However, people started to shift from this culture due to the changes in social views that were informed by research conducted by psychologists. Juveniles were now seen as youths, who had lost their way and not as hardened criminals.
The juvenile justice system was, therefore, used as an effective tool through which, discipline could be instilled in deviant youth and to cultivate law and order in the larger society. It was also seen as rehabilitation, rather than a punishment tool, where juveniles were nurtured to bring forth productive members of the society. Of its two main dispositions, a Juvenile court can issue probation orders or commit offenders to the Department of Corrections. In most cases, however, probation is issued. Studies have shown that most of the youth who have been subjected to the procedures of the juvenile court system find it hard to adjust fully to normal life. On the one hand, based on this finding and others, widespread public outcry has been witnessed calling for abolition of juvenile courts. On the other hand, with cases of crimes that are perpetrated by minors increasing rapidly, the demand for the existence of these courts is high. Whether the juvenile justice system should continue to exist or not remains a hotly contested issue. This forms the basis of this paper’s discussion.
In his argument, Edward Hume postulated that the American juvenile justice system needed a revolutionary reform. According to him, the system sent a lot of undeserving children to adult courts instead of taking them to rehabilitation centers. It pushes the unfortunate children aside and sets them on an early road to crime, a path that could have been avoided by supporting, counseling and training them to be accountable. Based solely on this account, the idea of abolishing the juvenile court system seems enticing. Good parenting and supportive counseling services can be suitable alternatives/ replacements for juvenile courts. However, this is not to say that every juvenile who gets to be referred to adult courts receive undue treatment. The judge has the discretion to determine whether a minor poses considerable danger to the society that warrants his/her referral to adult courts.
Most juvenile justice systems around the world are subjected to less scrutiny compared to adult systems. This creates a major loophole through which unscrupulous and unethical officials exploit their subjects – the minors. Children feel threatened whenever confronted by a much higher authority and strangers, especially when they know that they are on the wrong. They are, therefore, easy targets for exploitation. Their relative ignorance of their human rights further compounds their vulnerability. In the United States of America (in north-eastern Pennsylvania) early last decade, two very senior judges of a county juvenile court were charged with receiving kickbacks amounting to $2.6 million from privately owned juvenile detention centers (TIME US, 2009). In return, they would send kids off to those centers. Most of these were found to have committed minor offenses and were denied the benefit of lawyers. Their punishment was, therefore, unconstitutional. In Texas, the juvenile justice system was entirely overhauled some few years ago after shocking discoveries that kids were being held arbitrarily even after their sentence was due and that many of them were being sexually abused.
As stated earlier, the juvenile court system ought to be a rehabilitation tool rather than a punishment tool. However, recent research findings show otherwise. Consequently, these large detention institutions for juveniles should be substituted with much smaller facilities situated closer to the kids’ homes. Such facilities can offer relatively more specialized care, like education, counseling on drugs and mental health. This approach is credited with having to recidivism rates among juvenile offenders. In the state of Missouri, where this method is widely applied, for instance, authorities have reported a 10% fall in recidivism rates. The brain’s frontal lobe, where logical judgments are made, doesn’t develop fully until early to mid 20s (basis of judgment in Roper v Simmons case). Therefore, with time, juvenile courts should be eliminated and replaced with more specialized services .
Armed with all these negative facts concerning the current existence of juvenile justice systems, one might be compelled to ask the question "What factors justify their existence then?" To get the answers to this question, one need not look very far; mostly, be it in the family, the neighborhood, the state and indeed the whole country, cases of juvenile delinquency are evident. The statistics are equally startling! More than 2.5 million juvenile arrests are made and processed each year in the US. According to the recent study, the juvenile justice system, in one way or the other, directly touch up to 10% of all American youth between the ages of 10-17. Without this justice system, these kids would wreck a lot of havoc on the societies they live in. When they are locked up, they are trained on essential life skills to enable them become self-reliant and responsible members of the society. In this respect, the justice system is important.
Should a nation decide to eliminate its juvenile justice system, it would be imperative that it first puts measures in place to punish or rehabilitate offenders. One of its options might be integrating the juvenile system with the criminal court system. These two entities are different, functionally and structurally. Therefore, difficulties will most likely arise. The most salient functional differences lie in the rationales for forming these systems. For example, for the juvenile justice system, youth are considered to be developmentally different from adults and, therefore, their behavior is malleable. Rehabilitation is considered to be the primary goal. On the other hand, the criminal court system operates under the principle that punishments should be proportional to the offense committed. Here, rehabilitation is not a primary goal.
The major tumbling block in the journey towards transiting away from the traditional juvenile justice system to having youth divisions in the criminal court would still lie in the above differences and in the process itself. For instance, after the Iraq war, the juvenile justice of the country needed to be reformed. During reporting, protection and promotion of children’s rights was a major challenge. Eliminating juvenile detention institutions would mean restructuring the whole justice system, especially correctional facilities to accommodate the increased population. The issue is also likely to raise resistance from children rights activists.
Punishment is an important tool used by the justice system to deter future illegal conducts. However, its application alone is very unlikely to influence the behavior of the delinquent youth positively. Other kinds of specialized support services play a key role in shaping a juvenile’s future behavior, which is the basis of having an established juvenile justice system. If applied effectively and efficiently, these specialized services might counter the need to have juvenile detention institutions in the country. Moreover, there are other factors that make the idea of abolishing the juvenile justice system seem preferable and possible. They include kids’ immaturity, incidents of sexual harassment and corruption, just to name a few. Youth detained in the juvenile justice system are very vulnerable and even after their discharge; they find it hard to adjust to normal life. However factors that justify the importance of the institutions are equally weighty.