Juvenile Justice Moving into the Twenty First Century

This week, the Supreme Court decided to effectively bar mandatory life terms for juveniles. (The New York Times) The ruling marks a significant point in a long period of transition for juvenile justice policy.

Beginning in the 1980s through the early 1990s, youth crime rates rose in the United States. Some politicians felt that the juvenile system was ineffective and that there was no evidence of rehabilitation in youth offenders. They saw the system as something that worked for the crimes of a milder time, but that with the violent crimes being committed by current youth, they needed more punitive policies. “As the juvenile crime rates – particularly homicide – rose, politicians across the country rushed to enact tough policies through several legislative strategies.” More than 250,000 young offenders were transferred each year into the adult system–getting adult time for adult crime. (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

Discussions around the juvenile justice system, particularly the trying of children as adults and mandatory life sentences continued, with people from both sides of the issue passionate in their stance. Gradually, policies began to change. “In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court eliminated the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was also unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killings.” And this week the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring adolescents convicted of homicide to receive a life sentence are unconstitutional.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features–among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” stated Justice Kagan. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him–and from which he cannot usually extricate himself–no matter how brutal or dysfunctional” (The New York Times)

In their chapter, “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime,” Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg state that “Research in developmental psychology supports the view that several characteristics of adolescence distinguish young offenders from adults in ways that mitigate culpability. These adolescent traits include deficiencies in decision-making ability, greater vulnerability to external coercion, and the relatively unformed nature of adolescent character.”

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and issue editor of the Future of Children’s Juvenile Justice volume states in the New York Times, “About 10 percent of young violent criminals become adult offenders. But no one knows which ones. We tracked about 1,300 young convicted felons, the majority of them violent, over seven years. We interviewed each kid for hours so we knew more about them than any court will ever hope to know, and we saw them every six months. We were unable to predict which ones would be in the 10 percent.”

As the Future of Children’s policy brief on juvenile justice notes, “Both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should therefore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood.”

“Monday’s ruling,” Steinberg said, “along with the earlier ones on juveniles, is clearly a win from the point of view of developmental science.”

“Lawmakers may be ready to approach juvenile justice policy more thoughtfully today than they have in a generation. If so, a large body of recent research that was not available twenty years ago offers insights about adolescence and about young offenders. Using this scientific knowledge to shape the direction of juvenile justice policy will promote both social welfare and fairness.” (Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime- Future of Children-“Juvenile Justice”)

For more, go to: www.futureofchildren.org.

1 thought on “Juvenile Justice Moving into the Twenty First Century

  1. Mark Mayfield

    I represent juveniles in Northern California and I’ve watched for 20 years as punishments, and District Attorney attitudes, have become progressively more punitive.

    It is imperative that developmental science be applied to juvenile matters, and not just to treat children who violate the law as “junior criminals.”

    In my experience, many young men (and women) can be turned from a life of crime with some assistance from courts and health professionals.

    I’m not surprised that there is difficulty in determining which ones will reoffend. I’ve been surprised on mulitple occasions, both by which ones “turned it around” and which ones went on to commit truly terrible adult crimes.

    That’s why it’s important to at least attempt to assist every juvenile offender we come across. It absolutely is not a waste of time or money.

    Thank you for posting this article.

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