At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of juvenile justice made sense to many Americans. Legislators and the citizens they represented believed in a separate system of juvenile justice, one that would be distinct from criminal justice. They wanted a separate court system that could save children from imprisonment in newly built penitentiaries and from the stigma of a criminal record. Before the establishment of juvenile courts, states had established juvenile reformatories, training schools, and houses of refuge.
But the juvenile court expanded the options that officials had at their disposal. For example, probation became a popular option, because it had the low-cost advantage of keeping a juvenile in the community. Through the assistance of a probation officer, juveniles and their families could be counseled on how best to repeating their acts of offending. They could coordinate counseling with family members, school officials, and a range of youth professionals. That was the theory, but the practice proved otherwise.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the treatment-oriented approach of a juvenile court and its officials was no longer deemed suitable for all juveniles. The rehabilitative ideal became a questionable one. The juvenile court was no longer seen as the most appropriate legal setting. Juveniles who committed serious acts of crime or had a chronic history of offending began to be viewed less as children and more as adults, deserving of criminal justice instead of juvenile justice. The public and its representatives began to support legislation that would mandate criminal court for a segment of juveniles.
In 1996 I referred to the process of punishing juveniles as if they were adults as the recriminalization of delinquency. At the time, I wrote about several possibilities that would emerge. I predicted that juvenile justice would not be eliminated. I argued that it would resurface in a slightly different form—one that was more complex, more divided, and more cognizant of diverse categories of juveniles. Most recently the developmental literature on adolescence has made a convincing case for why a segment of juveniles should not be treated as children but as adolescents with a limited set of responsibilities.
The 21st century is leading to the reconsideration of adolescence and past efforts to criminalize the offenses of juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions acknowledged that adolescence should mitigate the severity of adult-like punishments. In its most recent decision of last year, the Court ruled that life without the possibility of parole for a person under the age of 18 is cruel and unusual punishment, even in the most serious of violent offenses. The Court recognized adolescence as a distinct period of time that requires distinct legal consideration. So too will a range of professionals need to consider the meaning of adolescence in our 21st century systems of juvenile justice. This is an opportunity to reinvent as well as to reconsider juvenile justice; its range of sanctions and treatments approaches. Should younger and older adolescents be pursued in different court settings, such as a youth court for older adolescents and a children’s court for younger ones? Should police, probation, judges, and correctional officials be more specialized in distinct stages of adolescent development? My feeling is that they should. Recognizing that adolescence is not one size fits all will lead to reinventing juvenile justice in the 21st century. The careers of students aspiring for a career in juvenile justice would be enhanced by recognizing adolescents in all their age specific complexities.
For further reading, consider these resources:
Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2460-63 (2012). http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-9646.pdf
2012. Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, Edited by J. B. Richard, L. J. Robert, M. C. Betty, and S. Julie: The National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=14685
Singer, Simon. 1996. Recriminalizing Delinquency: Violent Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice Reform. New York: Cambridge University Press. http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn…te_locale=en_GB