B. A Criminalized Juvenile Court
A second possible solution to the problems of the juvenile justice system is to “criminalize” the juvenile court—to attempt to make it a scaled down version of adult criminal court. Two things need to be done to accomplish this. First, a criminalized juvenile court would entail providing juveniles with all the procedural protections of criminal court. Thus, children would have the right to a jury trial and would have fully adversarial defense attorneys, not attorneys who often slip into the role of a concerned parent trading off zealous advocacy for promises of treatment. A second action that needs to be taken to transform juvenile court into a criminal court for youths would be to scale down penalties out of concern for the reduced culpability of children. Sentences would be shorter in such a juvenile court compared to adult criminal court. This reform was suggested about 30 years ago by the American Bar Association and the Institute of Judicial Administration.
The major problem with the suggestion of a criminalized juvenile court is that it may not satisfy calls for a more punitive approach to juvenile offenders. Critics of the current juvenile justice system do not want reduced penalties; they want adult penalties for what they perceive as adult offenses. Such critics contend that violent offenses indicate culpability and should be punished with lengthy prison terms.
C. Abolishing Juvenile Court
Some critics feel that the problems of juvenile court are too extensive and too fundamental to be fixed and that it is time to abandon the sinking ship of juvenile court. Since juvenile court provides neither help nor crime control, it should be abolished. In its place, Feld (1999) proposes adult criminal court for all, both juveniles and adults.
Adult court would mean that juveniles would receive adult procedural protections. Juveniles would have the right to a jury trial, and defense attorneys would act as zealous adversaries. At the same time, Feld (1999) argues that juveniles should still get shorter sentences because shorter sentences have been a saving feature of the juvenile system and they allow youths who have made mistakes to still have a chance at a normal adult life. He fails to note that adult court sentencing for juveniles would also require some type of protection of the youth’s record. In the juvenile justice system, adjudications and dispositions do not count against the individual. In other words, the youths can legally say that they have not been “arrested” or “convicted.” Such legal protections against arrest and conviction records can be extremely important if one is applying for a job, college, or the military.
Opponents argue that many juveniles are now handled in adult court, and the results have been harmful for juveniles. They contend that juveniles actually receive fewer due process protections in adult court than they would in juvenile court. Instead, juveniles are simply getting punishment in adult court, not treatment.
Some critics have tried to deflect concerns about overly harsh sentences in the adult system by suggesting that youthful offenders receive some form of reduced sentences. The problem with suggestions of discounted sentencing for youths in adult court is that even discounted sentences might not be much of a bargain. For example, if a life sentence is equivalent to a sentence of 50 years, a 16-year-old processed in adult court and receiving a 50% reduction of an adult sentence would still stay in prison until age 41. Thus, even with a youth “discount,” youths processed in adult court would pay a heavy price to leave juvenile court where the maximum sentence is until age 21.