Rethinking juvenile justice

In 1999, the juvenile court will be 100 years old. Instead of being a celebration, the 100th anniversary will be a bittersweet event. The juvenile court is under attack and in danger of going out of business. The public has lost confidence in the ability of the juvenile justice system to respond effectively to the problems of serious, repeat and violent young offenders. As a result, elected public officials are scurrying to enact legislation and implement policies designed to treat young offenders like adults. The cry that "adult-like crime deserves adult-like time" has caught on and is sweeping the country.

Juvenile crime will increase

The trend of implementing more punitive policies toward young offenders will probably increase in the years ahead. The at-risk population, youth between 14 and 17 years of age, is projected to increase. Unless there are dramatic changes in the behavior patterns of this age group, the volume of serious crime that will be committed by this population will probably increase as well.

As the juvenile crime problem worsens, legislatures can be expected to pass laws that will continue to erode the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. This means that increasing numbers of juveniles will be tried in the adult criminal courts and given adult-like sentences, including imprisonment. Eventually, lawmakers will have to face the question, Can a separate court for juveniles be justified? In fact, state lawmakers in at least two states, Michigan and Arizona, are already confronting this issue.

In Michigan, conservative and liberal legislators collaborated on the development and enactment of a package of "get tough" measures targeted toward juveniles in the late 1980s. Since that time, additional laws were passed that propelled even greater numbers of young people into the state's adult criminal justice system.

Now, some policy makers are asking whether the juvenile court should be abolished or whether its jurisdiction should be limited to misdemeanors and minor felony cases. Also, consideration is being given to transferring the state's youth training schools from the Michigan Department of Social Services to the Department of Corrections, the agency that administers the state's prison system, the rationale for the transfer being that the Department of Corrections would operate the facilities more like adult prisons than like treatment centers.

In Arizona, legislation has been introduced that would essentially eliminate the juvenile court. Although the legislation did not pass, the issue has been put on the public agenda in that state and will probably be raised again.

Adult sentences don't work

There is virtually no credible scientific evidence indicating that treating juveniles as adults will be effective in either reducing recidivism or acting as a deterrent to committing crimes by others. In fact, what little evidence there is suggests these policies are likely to be counterproductive. For example, a recent study of juveniles sentenced to adult prisons in Minnesota indicated that 84 percent of those released returned to prison within five years. More than half returned to prison within two years. A study in Florida indicated that juveniles released from Florida's prisons had significantly higher rates of recidivism than a matched group of adults.

Legislatures will undoubtedly continue to chip away at the court's jurisdiction over delinquency offenses. The adult criminal courts, with adequate resources, could assume the responsibility for the legal processing of delinquency cases. This does not necessarily mean that juveniles would have to receive adult-like sentences. To the contrary, sentences for juveniles should be proportionate to the harm done, developmentally appropriate, and carried out in an enlightened and individualized youth correction system.

Ira M. Schwartz is the dean of the School of Social Work.

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Originally published on January 28, 1998