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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Essay on History of US Juvenile Justice System

The US Juvenile Justice System
            Prior to the creation of the juvenile courts, minors aged seven (7) and above who were found to have committed misdemeanor were imprisoned together with the adults.  Whatever law is imposed for the punishment of adult offenders was applied to minors.  Minors were treated as harshly as adult offenders.  In fact, in 1648, there was a law in Massachusetts which imposed death penalty for any child over 16 who shall commit the offense of cursing their natural father or mother. 

            However, later studies and research showed that the incarceration of juvenile offenders together with adult offenders does more harm than good not just to the juvenile offenders but to the society as well.  This happened during the early years of the 19th Century where political and social reformers successfully pushed for reforms and instituted several changes in the society such as right of suffrage among women, protection of children against labor, and the institution of eight-hour work day.  With the help of social and political reformers, several changes were introduced in the criminal justice system and reformers started to rehabilitate rather than punish minors.  Society began to have a paradigm shift insofar as their treatment of juvenile delinquents is concerned.  Thus, the Juvenile Justice System was created to reform US policies regarding juvenile offenders.  Thus, the New York Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents led the opening of the House of Refuge which was the country’s first reformatory.

The First Juvenile Court
            In 1899, the first juvenile court was established by Jane Adams in Chicago, Illinois.  Its establishment was an affirmation of the fundamental principle that children are developmentally different from adults (Shay Bilchik, 1999, p.1).  Minors are also considered to be more amenable to treatment and rehabilitation (Shay Bilchik, 1999, p.1).  Considering these fundamental behavioral differences between an adult and a minor, placing juvenile offenders in the same confinements and treating them in the same manner as adults shall not be good for their rehabilitation and transformation.   Thus, the juvenile justice system was created to utilize personal, individualized and treatment-focused approach as a long term solution to the problem of juvenile offenders (Patricia Allard and Malcolm Young, 2002, p.4). 

Barriers to the Effective Implementation of Juvenile Justice System
            Research shows, however, that there are certain barriers to making the juvenile justice system an effective tool for rehabilitation and treatment.  One of the reasons are the incidences of judges who abuse their discretion in incarcerating children for petty offenses without requiring the same standards of proof which the adult defendants are entitled.  Consider the case of In Re Gault where the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling of conviction of a minor who allegedly made an obscene telephone call.  The Supreme Court ruled that minors who are charged with offenses in juvenile court were also entitled to basic due process: notice of the charge, a right to counsel, and elements of the right to trial including confronting witnesses as opposed to trial by hearsay (In Re Gault).
            In addition, denial of due process against juvenile offenders is a common occurrence.  In a 1993 survey conducted by the American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, they found that there are frequent incidents of questionable "waiver" of counsel; crushingly high defender caseloads; missed opportunities to interview, investigate and intervene when services might have helped a child (Patricia Allard and Malcolm Young, 2002, p4)  

            The lack of funding and adequate number of personnel add burden to the effective implementation of the principle and policy behind the juvenile justice system.  These are serious obstacles that affect the efficiency of the programs for rehabilitation and treatment of juvenile offenders. 

In addition, the main principles behind the juvenile justice system are being questioned.  The opponents of the juvenile justice system argue that they are not effective in controlling crime.  This is manifested by the fact that research has shown that murder by juveniles remained at a relatively constant level for the decade before 1985, but it underwent a large and disturbing annual increase.  In view of the failure of the juvenile justice system to control criminal behavior among juveniles, there are proposals coming from other sectors of the society to shift the legislative policy from rehabilitation of juvenile offender to punishment. 

Facing a dilemma - should the state concentrate its efforts on preventing crime or should it focus on rehabilitating offenders - the state has to choose between two options: Should the state use its resources to build more juvenile penitentiaries and incarcerate youthful offenders every time they violate the law as a means of punishment or should the state use its fund to help in parenting, recreational and mentoring programs that are geared towards the rehabilitation of the youth that are geared towards the rehabilitation of the youth. 

Case of In re Gault, 387 US 1 (1967)
            One of the main issues surrounding the juvenile justice system is that it is gradually integrating itself with the criminal justice system for the adults.  In principle, the juvenile justice system is supposed to be procedurally different from the criminal justice system for adults.  The intention was that the juvenile justice system was supposed to be akin to a civil proceeding as distinguished from criminal trials.  Since it is a civil proceeding the juvenile offenders were not afforded due process rights, a right which is guaranteed and protected for adults facing criminal trials.  Juvenile offenders were also not entitled to the right to trial by jury and the freedom against self-incrimination. 

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In view, however, of the decision in the case of In Re Gault substantial change in the procedural principle in the juvenile justice system took effect.  In the 1967 case of Gerald Francis Gault, he was placed in detention after he made an obscene call to a neighbor while under probation. The Supreme Court made a ruling that minors could not be incarcerated for committing petty offenses without requiring the same standards of proof which the defendants are entitled.  Thus, the Supreme Court declared that juvenile offenders are likewise entitled to due process of law and directed the juvenile courts to grant the juvenile offenders the following rights:  a) the right to receive notice of charges; b) the right to obtain legal counsel; c) the right to confrontation and cross-examination; d) the privilege against self-incrimination; e) the right to receive a transcript of the proceedings, and f) the right to appellate review.   In this case however, Justice Potter Steward wrote his dissenting opinion against the imposition of formal trials in juvenile courts.  He expressed concern that the juvenile court proceeding is being converted into an adult criminal court.  He emphasized that the purpose of juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate not to punish these youthful offenders thus the grant of the said rights does not serve the purpose and intent of the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile Transfer to Adult Courts
            In addition to the decision in the case of In Re Gault, several legislative measures have been passed which required the transfer of jurisdiction of juveniles to adult courts.  The most serious repercussions of these laws are that slowly the society is trying to once again make the juvenile offenders under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.  It is as if the courts and the legislators are trying to slowly trying to reduce the powers of juvenile courts so that the juvenile offender and the adult offenders will once again be governed by the same principles.  These laws are a) prosecutorial discretion; b) statutory exclusion; c) lowered age limits; d) “once an adult always an adult” policy; e) judicial waiver.

Prosecutorial discretion is otherwise known as the direct file transfer since the prosecutors are given the complete authority to determine whether to file a case against a juvenile offender in juvenile courts or directly in criminal courts.  One of the criteria used in filing cases in criminal courts is the gravity of the crime.  This means that for a crime of murder committed by a minor it is possible that a prosecutor may choose to file a case in criminal courts. Another measure used to transfer jurisdiction is statutory exclusion.  Some states automatically grant jurisdiction to criminal courts on offenses committed by juvenile offenders depending on either the age or the nature of the offense charged.  In some states, the age limits are lowered so that regardless of the nature of the crime committed, the offender is tried as an adult.  Thus, the adult courts are automatically granted the authority to hear cases involving juvenile offenders if they have reached a certain age limit.   Thee are some states which adopt the “once an adult, always an adult” policy which treats a juvenile offender who has previously prosecuted as an adult in criminal courts as an adult for all subsequent cases.  In judicial waiver, the state or the prosecution files a motion before the juvenile court to transfer jurisdiction from juvenile courts to criminal court.  It is the judge who determines whether the transfer should be effected based on the judge’s sole discretion, or because certain well-defined criteria has been met or upon a probable cause determination for an offense for which the state has deemed that the waiver is appropriate. 

            There are many apprehensions about the increasing number of juvenile offenders being prosecuted as an adult in criminal courts and being placed in the same confinement as adults  Among the arguments raised are that it fails to address the special needs of the minors who at that tender age needs the protection and help of the society.  Also, it argued that transferring jurisdiction to criminal courts does not equip the minors of any learning necessary to reenter the communities.  Another argument is that the transfer fails to take into account the notion that violence is a learned behavior.  It must be stressed that most of the time these juvenile offenders were also victims of abuse or neglect. 

            The creation of the juvenile justice system in the 19th Century was a significant move towards social reform.  The reformers in the past have learned from the mistakes of the law makers and the judges before them.  It was indeed a sound judgment to create a separate court for juvenile offenders.  Yet, several centuries after the juvenile justice system was created it would seem that the courts and legislators are once again committing the mistake of the people before the 19th Century.  The laws providing for juvenile transfers to adult courts and the decision of the Supreme Court in In re Gault attest that society no longer believes in juvenile courts and would rather let adult courts handle juvenile offenders.  I disagree with this.  Juvenile offenders should be governed by a different justice system.  The criminal courts already have their hands full in handling adult offenders.  If jurisdiction over the juvenile offenders will be transferred to them a significant burden will be imposed upon criminal courts. Under criminal courts, the principle behind the creation of juvenile justice system will be put to waste.

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