The United States juvenile justice system was established with the primary mandate of rehabilitating minors who are engaging in criminal activities. Juvenile delinquency is common in various parts of the country, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Drug smuggling, abuse of drugs, breaking, robbery, vandalism, and illegal possession and use of firearms are some of the common crimes among juveniles (Harris & Mooney, 2020). Whenever a child is suspected of being involved in such a criminal act, they have to go through a justice system. However, they cannot be subjected to the standard criminal justice system meant for adults. The juvenile justice system was established to try such cases and help in rehabilitating minors who are found guilty of various forms of crime. The goal is to take them away from the environment where they are likely to engage in crime and help them reform so that they can become responsible adults who are law-abiding and capable of playing different roles in the country’s socio-economic and political development.
How It Is Structured
The structure of the juvenile justice system in the United States is different from the common justice system meant for adults. According to Siegel and Welsh (2018), the system has been structured in a way that is meant to cause the least possible trauma to minors. Its goal is to ensure that they are assisted to overcome challenges that might have caused them to commit a crime. The system has been structured to have nine stages of handling children suspected to have committed a given crime. The first step is the arrest by law enforcement officers. It should be conducted in a manner that does not cause trauma to the child, especially because, at this stage, there is the presumption of innocence. Once the arrest is made, the second step is the referral to court where the prosecuting team is expected to present the case.
The third stage in this structure is the diversion where a decision has to be made whether the case should go through a full hearing or if it can take non-law enforcement approaches (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). In many cases, children with minor offenses would be released at this stage but with a warning to them and their guardians about more serious consequences in case, they repeat similar offenses. If it is established that it is a major crime, then the minor will have to be taken through the trial system. The juvenile will go through the fourth stage of secure detention. Drinan (2018) explains that remand prisons meant for adults cannot be used when handling children. They need a facility that is similar to a school, but secure enough to ensure they can neither escape nor expose others to danger. They have to be held at these facilities as they wait for their case to be decided.
It is the responsibility of relevant authorities at these juvenile remand facilities to ensure that everyone is safe at all times. The fifth stage in the juvenile justice system is the judicial waiver to adult criminal court (Harris & Mooney, 2020). There must be consent from the parent or guardian that the child, because of the tender age, would not be taken through the criminal court meant for adults. When that is completed, the next stage is the case petition where the prosecution team presents the case. Up to this stage, there is still the presumption that the child is innocent. It is upon the prosecutor to ensure that the judge is convinced that the child committed the crime based on the evidence and witnesses presented in court.
The adjudication, also known as delinquency finding, is the next stage in this system. At this stage, the judge is expected to review the evidence and argument presented by the prosecutor against that of the defense to make the decision. Drinan (2018) explains that when a child is tried as a juvenile, it is the responsibility of the judge to decide the case. However, sometimes a teenager (especially when they are a few months to adulthood) may be tried as an adult depending on the weight of the case and their past criminal records. When they are tried as adults, it may be necessary to have a jury deciding the case, before the judge can pass a sentence. In such a case, the minor will no longer go through the juvenile justice system because they will be treated as adults.
When a child is tried as a juvenile and found guilty, the next step is to take them through probation or residential placement depending on the judgment given. Probation is often preferred, especially when dealing with first-time offenders who have committed a less serious crime. They have to follow the guidelines provided by the probation officer and ensure that they avoid repeating their offense. When they must be incarcerated, they may be taken through an alternative education system to enable them to continue with their schooling (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). If that option is not available, they have to be taken through facilities where they are taught life skills so that they can become responsible members of society.
How It Affects the Juveniles
The juvenile justice system was designed to help juvenile delinquents transform into responsible members of society. Instead of punishing these children, the system is meant to help them understand the dangers of engaging in crime and the need to lead a life where they have to abide by the law. According to Siegel and Welsh (2018), when developing this system, there was an understanding that most of these minors are exposed to crime because of the environment in which they live. As such, they grow up knowing that it is normal to use drugs, fight, steal, and engage in other crimes to get food or achieve personal goals. Therefore, the mandate of the system is to help them have a different perspective of life. However, a part of society believes that it often achieves the opposite. In this section of the report, it is necessary to look at both the positive and negative effects of the system on juveniles.
Critics of the United States juvenile system argue that it affects children negatively instead of helping them to become responsible citizens. When a child is incarcerated for the first time, they get to mingle with others who have to go through the system repeatedly. They get to share their experience and get inspired to be involved in even more serious criminal activities (Harris & Mooney, 2020). They learn how to avoid law-enforcement authorities during and after committing a crime. Some of them get to embrace the concept of eliminating witnesses as a way of avoiding arrest and prosecution. At this age, it is easy for their mind to be manipulated, especially by older colleagues. Drinan (2018) explains that most of the facilities meant for incarcerating juveniles lack a proper system that can separate repeat offenders from first-timers. Officers at these facilities do not consider it a priority. The ability to share information about personal criminal activities empowers these children to become serious criminals.
Studies have shown that a significant number of minors who go through the juvenile justice system end up learning more about crime than how to lead successful lives. Feld (2017) argues that a child who has been through the system is three times more likely to engage in crime than those who have not. It means that the system is failing to achieve its core mandate of transforming delinquents. Instead, it is equipping them with dangerous knowledge about crime and hooliganism. A child who has been incarcerated is seven times more likely to abuse drugs than their colleagues who are not in prison. The government is yet to develop effective ways of addressing these concerns to make the system safe and capable of transforming children.
There is also the problem of physical and emotional abuse of children when held in these facilities. According to Harris and Mooney (2020), cases of sexual abuse are always rampant in these facilities. The problem is that most of them are never reported as victims learn to live with their pain, believing it is part of their punishment. They fear that if they report, they would be exposing themselves to greater danger. Others feel that the authority would not do much even if they reported such abuses.
A part of society believes that the United States juvenile justice system is the best the country can offer. Feld (2017) argues that instead of focusing on its weaknesses, society should focus on the available alternative. The only such alternative is to go through the adult criminal justice system. The dangers that these children would face in such a system are by far worse than what they go through in the juvenile justice system. When exposed to hardened criminals, chances of them reforming would be significantly reduced. It would be like taking them to training camps where they can learn to be experts in criminal activities. The current system has the effect of rehabilitating them so that they can become better citizens. Some of these facilities allow these children to continue with their education, which enhances the possibility of them being transformed. Others acquire life skills that they can use once they complete their terms in prison. It is true that the current system has weaknesses, but it is better than having minors handled as adults.
How It Can Be Improved to Rehabilitate in the Process
The United States juvenile justice system is playing a critical role in helping to reform minors who engage in criminal activities. However, it is apparent that the system has weaknesses that may need to be addressed to ensure that it achieves its mandate. One of the recommendations legal scholars have proposed is the need to transform all incarceration facilities for minors into formal learning institutions. If a child is sentenced to 4 years in prison, they should be able to continue their learning in these institutions. Correctional officers should be trained as teachers so that they can be responsible for the academics of young prisoners. These institutions should go beyond the standard curriculum offered in the country. Strict discipline should be maintained, and, if necessary, there should be some form of corporal punishment for learners who fail to obey the law (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). Their behavior and manner of interaction should be monitored closely to ensure that they do not engage in unlawful activities. The strategy may require additional funding for these institutions, but it offers the best solution to some of the major weaknesses of the current system.
A part of society has been championing a change of the system where incarceration is eliminated for first-time offenders of non-violent crimes that do not result in death. Cases, where children are prisoned for simple offenses of stealing food, are worrying (Feld, 2017). Such children may have a legitimate problem that pushes them to commit petty crimes. Instead of sending them to jail, the juvenile justice system should focus on understanding why they committed the crime, with the intention of finding ways of addressing the cause. Probation is a better way of dealing with children who engage in crime within the country. It ensures that they do not get the opportunity to interact with criminals who can manipulate them easily once they leave prison.
When it becomes necessary that a juvenile has to be incarcerated outside a school system because of the magnitude of the crime, it is necessary to find ways of protecting them. One of the ways of achieving this goal is to ensure that their activities, especially interactions they have, are monitored at all times, including their discussions (Drinan, 2018). The goal is to ensure that they can easily be protected from any physical harm for the time they are in prison. Monitoring their discussion will help in eliminating cases where prisoners share with their colleagues about their life as criminals. Strict rules should be enacted and enforced to ensure that these minors do not get inspired to become hardened criminals. Technology offers an effective way of monitoring activities of these prisoners at all times. The use of closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) may be necessary to enhance their security. Whichever strategy that the Justice Department chooses to use, it should remain clear to the juveniles that the focus is to transform them so that they can become responsible citizens.
The United States juvenile justice system is meant to transform minors who engage in criminal activities. The Justice System realized that it was not advisable to take children through the criminal justice system that adults go through because, at this tender age, they need special treatment. The system emphasizes the need to understand reasons why a child committed a crime and ways in which they can be helped to become a better person. As shown in the discussion above, the system has some weaknesses that limit its ability to achieve its mandate. The fact that children who have gone through the system are more likely to engage in crime than those who have not is worrying. Some of them are also exposed to physical and emotional harm. These weaknesses should be addressed to enhance the effectiveness of the system.
Drinan, C. H. (2018). The war on kids: How American juvenile justice lost its way. Oxford University Press.
Feld, B. C. (2017). The evolution of the juvenile court: Race, politics, and the criminalizing of juvenile justice. New York University Press.
Harris, D., & Mooney, C. (2020). The juvenile justice system. Essential Library.
Siegel, J., & Welsh, B. (2018). Juvenile delinquency: Theory, practice, and law (13th ed.). Cengage Learning.