Sending juveniles to adult prison is not guaranteed to reduce crime. Research shows that an aggressive system of juvenile treatment may prevent more crime than prosecuting youths as adults and giving them lengthy prison sentences.
It may be convenient to call all youths under age 18 juveniles, but it is legally incorrect and morally evasive. Legally, a person is either a juvenile or an adult. Unless we are fully prepared to think of teens as adults, we should not prosecute them as adults, whether they face capital punishment, imprisonment or probation.
In the rush to get tough on crime during the 1980s and 1990s, state laws were changed so that complicated questions of child development and legal responsibility now are settled in the state capitol, not in the courtroom.
Jeffrey A. Butts and Janeen Buck (2002). The Sudden Popularity of Teen Courts. Judges' Journal, 41(1): 29-33, 48. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association. The rapid spread of teen courts underscores their popularity with the public, elected officials, schools, and parents. Research about teen courts is limited, although some studies offer encouraging results.
Sociologist Simon Singer draws upon the experiences of a single jurisdiction (New York State) to examine the most prominent trend in contemporary juvenile crime policy-the transfer of young offenders to criminal court, where they can be tried as adults. Nearly every state legislature, the U.S. Congress, and virtually all candidates for elected office now embrace criminal-court transfer as a necessary keystone of juvenile crime policy.
A compelling argument can be made for abolishing the juvenile justice system, or more specifically, abolishing delinquency, the idea that young offenders aren’t fully responsible for their behavior and should be handled in a separate court system. Abolishing delinquency is not the same thing as abolishing the entire juvenile court. Even if lawmakers ended the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over criminal law violations, the juvenile court could continue to handle other types of cases (e.g., abused and neglected children, truants, curfew violations). In fact, youthful offenders could continue to be handled by the same judges in the same courtrooms that handle them now, but the courts would operate as youth divisions of a criminal court using criminal procedures under the criminal code.
As the rate of juvenile violence reached a peak in 1994, the public demanded action, and lawmakers escalated efforts to remake the juvenile justice system in the image of the adult counterpart. In this drive, many states passed laws to transfer larger numbers of young offenders to the criminal courts where they could be tried as adults.
After years of studying and working in the field of juvenile justice, I found a simple, graphic portrayal of the complex philosophies and theories underlying U.S. juvenile justice policy. This one image captures the essence of research, law, and policy thinking that has led to our current legal approach for intervening with young offenders.