Juvenile Justice

VIII. Proposals for Reforming Juvenile Court

The juvenile justice system continues to face calls to reform itself in light of significant levels of juvenile delinquency and its apparent failure to address youthful misbehavior. The reforms range from returning to the promise of parens patriae, to criminalizing the juvenile court, to abolishing the juvenile court altogether. These and other suggested reforms mean that the juvenile system is constantly buffeted by opposing forces.

A. Rehabilitating the Rehabilitative Parens Patriae Court

One approach to the problems of the juvenile court is to try to return to the rehabilitative and parens patriae roots of the court. Reformers who support this option think that the failures of juvenile court are failures of implementation: The juvenile court has not delivered the rehabilitation that it initially promised. A major factor behind this failure of implementation is lack of funding. Legislators have not provided the money needed to help youths obtain education, counseling, family assistance, and vocational training. The assumption is that if juvenile courts received adequate funding and if they followed the advice of the research on effective rehabilitation programs, juvenile court could be the ideal youth court envisioned by the Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century. Juvenile court judges could act like concerned parents trying to help children.

Numerous commentators advocate both early intervention and the use of proven rehabilitation principles. They urge the use of verified risk assessment techniques so that the court can identify and focus on youth most likely to become serious, violent, and chronic offenders, rather than wasting efforts on the least serious offenders who will not offend again. In addition, they support efforts such as graduated sanctions, matching youths and interventions, gender-specific programming for girls, culturally appropriate programs for minority youths, family interventions, and the elimination of transfer to adult court.

Feld (1999) points out flaws with the argument that juvenile court failure is simply a failure of implementation and that all that is needed is a rededication to the original rehabilitative ideals of juvenile court. Feld agrees that adequate funds have not been devoted to juvenile court, but he argues that funds will always be inadequate. One reason is that there is “pervasive public antipathy” to helping the poor, disadvantaged, disproportionately minority youths who are the clients of juvenile court. Another reason is that since committing a crime is the condition for receiving “help” from juvenile court, there is a built-in punishment focus. Feld argues that providing for children is a societal responsibility, not just a responsibility of the juvenile justice system. In fact, the mere existence of the juvenile system is an excuse or alibi for not providing for poor, minority youths.

Feld (1999) also argues that juvenile court does not provide procedural fairness to children. Traditionally, some of the procedural protections of adult court, such as the right to a jury trial, have been denied children on the justification that the juvenile court was not a punitive court like adult court. Even worse than denying procedural protections, juvenile courts have treated children in similar circumstances who commit similar offenses in unequal and disparate fashion. This individualized handling was originally justified based on the supposed rehabilitative foundation of juvenile court. But since juvenile court is punitive and does not provide rehabilitation, this denial of due process safeguards makes juvenile court unfair and unjust. In summary, Feld thinks that efforts to return the juvenile court to its rehabilitative ideal are doomed to failure.

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