American Juvenile Justice System

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America’s criminal justice system is broken; it has prioritized detention and criminalization over-recovery for juvenile criminals. Reforms of how the court treats minors who have defied the law are urgently needed. In recent years, the new paradigm has ignored the critical and essential considerations of sophistication and age. Adolescents and youth have been vulnerable to adult juvenile justice systems, which already have deep-seated problems. As a result, most people agree that changes are needed to ensure that children and youth are shielded from interaction with the justice system. They need to be treated appropriately and fairly so as to ensure that they are rehabilitated, integrated into the society and can then grow up to be productive citizens. This paper seeks to analyze the various issues that currently affect the justice system and therefore establish the reforms that can be undertaken.


In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), was passed. Since then several amendments have been made on the Act. Some states all over the United States have set up federal oversight aimed at ensuring its adherence. In addition to that, several states have also set up several requirements that provide for how they should treat the young or youthful offenders. For instance, a common requirement in several states is whereby underage individuals need to be kept out of prisons. Another is the provision that prevents racial discrimination in the treatment of offenders. However, since the year 2002, Congress has not reauthorized the law or made any significant amendments to address the issues that have developed through time. Therefore, there is a need for new standards to be set up and its implementation strengthened so that the predominant issues are addressed (Kleiser 252-253). The following are some of the reforms that can be implanted by the judiciary and the society in general.

Recommendation for Reforms

Keeping Juveniles out of Prisons

According to recent studies and research, problems and issues presented by young people are uniquely suited for rehabilitation. Most young people tend to lack adult levels of impulse control, judgment, or the ability to assess and determine risks. According to Wakefield et al. (2016), the areas of the brain that aid decision-making and judgment in youth and young children are typically under-developed at least for the ones below the age of 20. The current judicial system treats youth excessively harsh without taking to account such scientific facts. The overly punitive method of dealing with child offenders include a range f injustices such the mandatory incarceration or detention for offenses and life sentences without parole.

Currently, in the United States, children and youth can be brought to a court or detained for behaviors that are even not crimes, skipping school or running away from home. Such offenses are referred to as status offenses and the above actions are completely illegal. According to the provisions of the JJDPA, states have no legal ability to detain or keep a child for a status offense. It is only the provisions that were introduced in 1980 that offers specific exceptions whereby judges can make rulings to detain an underage individual. However, a report from the Texas Public Foundation revealed that thousands of youth and children were being held in police custody annually for status offenses. The Whitehouse/Grassley bill has called for states throughout the country to abolish the exception mentioned above. Wakefield et al. (2016) also states that if a child is detained, there is an increased likelihood that the particular child will be incarcerated later on in his or her life as an adult. Given this possibility, the action of holding children should be avoided at all cost. Instead, they can receive support services and intervention strategies that may not necessarily require incarceration.

Before the introduction of the JJDPA in 1974, incarceration of children was a common practice. At the time of its original passage, it was estimated that over 300,000 children were being put in adult prisons each year. Prior provisions only required a sound and sight separation between the adults and young prisoners. This meant that youth could be legally put in a general population prison as long as they were not within earshot and eyeshot of the adult population. In 1980, a new introduction was made to the JJDPA that introduced a jail removal policy whereby youth were to be moved from adult prisons and jails entirely. A major loophole present in the JJDPA is that its jurisdictions only apply within the juvenile system. This means that if a young individual is charged as an adult then that individual cannot be provided for by the protection of the JJDPA. This was witnessed during the 1990s whereby 45 states made legislation that made it possible for youth from the juvenile system to the criminal system. This saw an increased number of youth being charged as adults hence those kids could not enjoy the provisions of the JJDPA. Even though most states have made amendments to reverse the policy, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch announced in 2012 that 93,000 youth were still being held in adult jail annually while over 2,300 were being incarcerated in adult prisons (Crutchfield 5).

Policy Reforms

It is true that women and men in law enforcement strive to protect communities all over the country. However, they need to also spearhead the reforms being called for. Legislators as well need to be committed to setting up laws and regulations that ensure the rights and well-being of the young ones. Congress has the fiscal and moral imperative to enable the criminal justice system to appropriately calibrate sentences for offenses. Given the fact presented regarding the effect of incarceration on children, other punitive measures can be set up. In addition to that, the system needs to come up with strategies such as rehabilitation and other similar intervention strategies so as to make prison a last option for child offenders. Judicial interaction with minors needs to take into account the impacts of the offense and the intended punishment. If a child stands a chance to reform then prison can become the last option. A system that is focused on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment could be more effective especially for young offenders who still have a possibility of a brighter future (Ehrhard-Dietzel et al. 223-230).

The Grassley/Whitehouse bill seemed to have extended the provisions of the JJDPA. Together, the laws provide for all youth in both the juvenile system and those who are charged as adults. Meaning that according to both laws, no youth can be placed in adult prisons and jails. The problem with the implementation of these laws is the play of politics. Both Democrats and Republicans share in the struggle to implement and make reforms on legislation that protect child offenders. However, some states such as North Carolina have made major strides in the reform process. It has passed numerous amendments including a law that allows a juvenile’s criminal record to be expunged in cases of non-violent offenses, the requirement of a parent, guardian, or attorney to be present during any police interrogation of suspected child offended, and the limitation of detention for particular offenses. Delaware has also made major reforms that have seen the expansion f civil citations as opposed to criminal charges for young offenders. This has put an end to the shackling of a youth unless for circumstances whereby safety is threatened. It has also made some changes to introduce a free legal representation for youth or children being charged with a crime. It also allows the records of some offenses to be expunged from a child’s record (Adler et al. 2-4).

During Barack Obama’s term, he rightly acted to put an end to solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. This move was reciprocated by a ruling by the Supreme that Court ruling that stated that mandatory sentence of death in prison or the death penalty was unusual and cruel for juveniles. Congress then also participated in the policy reform through the Senate Judiciary Committee that passed the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act through a bipartisan 15-5 vote. The act introduced several provisions including the limitation of solitary confinement for juveniles who have been placed in federal custody. In the general, the Act aimed at addressing the imbalance between rehabilitation and incarceration in order to restore fairness, save taxpayer dollars, and most importantly reconstitute families. The act could achieve this without causing any harm to the integrity of public safety since prison sentences would only be reformed and recalibrated so as to ensure the appropriate and effective judicial oversight.

Addressing Racial Disparities

According to Voisin (2017), the youth of color are quite overrepresented in the juvenile justice system as most of them are either under incarceration or are arrested arbitrarily. Recent studies depict how the black youth are twice as likely to be arrested as compared to a white youth. In the 14 percent of the youth under incarceration currently, 40 percent of them are black. As mentioned above the JJDPA requires states to ensure that there is no disproportionate minority contact at every level of the system whether during an arrest, trial, or incarceration. However, there are no accurate or specific rates or standards to which the disproportionate contact can be reduced. The Grassley or the Whitehouse bill was intended to change as it directly requires states to reduce the disparate number of youth being introduced to the system. Instead of referring to the reduction in the count it provides for the reduction of disparity.

An insight into the number of juveniles and youth-serving life sentences without the possibility of parole offers evidence on how racial inequalities has become extensive in the juvenile criminal justice system. The same rates also reflect the rates of adults serving similar sentences. As mentioned the arrest rate of black youth is twice that of a white youth, similarly, a youth of color is 1.4 times more likely to be detained than a white youth arrested for a similar crime. The black individual is also twice more likely to be transferred to an adult prison. Moreover, African-American youth are 10 times more likely to be given life sentences compared to their white counterparts who engaged in a similar crime. These statistics are some of the facts that reflect the current disparities in the judicial system. According to the Journal of Law and Economics empirical study released in 2001, statistics from federal courts revealed that at an average rate, black youth tend to receive sentences twice as long as the whites. It also found that African-American youth make up 56.4 percent of the youth sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Racial disparities still remains a critical issue that needs to be addressed as these rates is quite alarming (Evangelist 1-13).

Assistance of Counsel

There is a need for the improved access to effective counsel as this could determine if the accused receives severe punishment or if they receive appropriate sentences. In the case of a juvenile in a criminal justice system, the lack of adequate representation may result in improper sentencing. As mentioned above, states such as Delaware and North Caroline provide for some records to be expunged from an individual’s record. Representation is therefore paramount as the future of the juvenile is on the line. In Virginia, court-appointed attorneys are assigned to offer legal counsel to youth who are being transferred to an adult court.

A study carried out in Washington State on the youth sentenced to life without the possibility of parole established that seven out of twenty-eight cases handled in the state that resulted in the sentence where whereby counsel had either been suspended, censure, and or disbarred from practicing law. In one of the cases, counsel had failed to carry out a psychological or mental evaluation on the client, did not arrange or call a single witness during the court hearing, called no experts for the trial, and spent less than five hours with the client between the transfer and the hearing. With all these flaws the accused stood no chance and ended up being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Life imprisonment of a juvenile or a youth especially because of inadequate representation by counsel is extreme and unjust. It undermines the values of the justice and leads to several broken places in the system. Shared values should be upheld through intervention strategies such as rehabilitation, redemption, and fairness in order to ensure the viability of the young generation (Decker and Nerea 11-15).

Reducing sentences and Improving Judicial Discretion

The definition of justice describes that when a crime is committed, the justice system needs to offer a sentence that is not only legal but also appropriate to the offense. However, the rise of the minimum sentencing which is largely mandatory has created a distortion of the judicial system’s core values. It has denied judges and juries the ability to take into account the individual facts of a given case and in respect offer an appropriate sentence. In 29 states, once a juvenile offender is convicted of a particular crime in an adult system, he or she must receive a life sentence without possibility of parole. This is a requirement that does not consider circumstances such as; mental health issues, amenability to treatment, or history of trauma. Moreover, the jury or the judge does not have the discretion to make a different or less extreme rule. Such law provisions are unjust and do not give a better chance for a juvenile to change or rehabilitate (Feld 4-7). These are the main reasons that many people believe that the judicial system is broken and needs to be fixed


The American Justice system needs to be grounded in the values of redemption, rehabilitation, and fairness. Furthermore, it needs to develop a definite distinction between youth or juveniles and adults. Most importantly, it is supposed to ensure that the youth are treated in an age-appropriate manner, issues such the mandatory sentences mentioned above need to be done away with. The federal government and states government have a great responsibility of ensuring that legislation that will help and not doom the youth is passed. This is the main reason why the juvenile justice system was created in the first place. The country suffers a great disservice if the children are not fairly or justly treated. Partisan politics should be set aside in order come up with sound proposals and legislation that will set up the necessary reforms to the criminal justice system.

Works Cited

Adler, Nancy E., et al. Addressing Social Determinants of Health and Health Disparities. Discussion Paper, Vital Directions for Health and Health Care Series. National Academy of Medicine, Washington, DC. https://nam. edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/addressing-social-determinantsof-health-and-health-disparities. pdf, 2016. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

Crutchfield, Robert D. “Current Criminal Justice System Policy Reform Movements: The Problem of Unintended Consequences.” Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality5.2 (2017): 5.

Decker, Scott H., and Nerea Marteache, eds. International handbook of juvenile justice. Springer International Pu, (2017): 11-15

Ehrhard-Dietzel, Susan, Michael S. Barton, and Darien A. Hickey. “Implementation and Outcomes of an Innovative Front End Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 34.3 (2017): 223-234.

Evangelist, Michael. “Disparities at Adjudication in the Juvenile Justice System: An Examination of Race, Gender, and Age.” Social Work Research (2017): 1-13.

Feld, Barry C. The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice. NYU Press, (2017): 4-7

Kleiser, Eric. “Franklin E. Zimring and David S. Tanenhaus (eds.): Choosing the Future for American Juvenile Justice, New York University Press, New York, 2014, 256 pp, ISBN: 9781479816873.” (2016): 252-253.

Voisin, Dexter R. “Involvement in the Juvenile Justice System for African American Adolescents: Examining Associations with Behavioral Health Problems.” Journal of Social Service Research 43.1 (2017): 129-140.

Wakefield, Sara, Hedwig Lee, and Christopher Wildeman. “Tough on crime, tough on families? Criminal justice and family life in America.” (2016): 8-21.

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