Should Juvenile Committing Felonies be Tried As Adults?

Introduction: Issue, Policy, Problem:
States are legislating juvenile justice policy at a remarkable pace. An analysis of proposed and enacted legislation between 2005 and 2007 suggests that over a thousand juvenile justice measures have been introduced in state legislatures in the past several years, resulting in more than 300 new laws and policies. In the late 1980s, juvenile crime, especially violent crime, began to increase dramatically (Snyder and Sickmund 1999). In1994, the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention act was amended to enforce significant changes to the traditional philosophy and approach of the juvenile court ( The expansion of transfer laws and the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for commission of serious, violent, and gang-related crimes, drug offending, and gun-related offenses were now a priority to help break a long standing pattern of allowing juveniles off the hook when they have committed crimes which allowed them to serve very little or no time at all. Minimum detention standards were also put into place in some states. With these detention standards in place, it would put the juvenile justice system in line with the adult (criminal) system.

A series of school shootings and other horrendous crimes have caused the public to begin to fear a new breed of juvenile super predators, as defined by the OJJDP, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. An OJJDP’s report acknowledges the threat of juvenile violence and delinquency was grossly exaggerated in the 1990’s. Due to this, many states have current laws on their books which would allow a juvenile as young at fourteen to be tried as an adult. Allowing prosecutor’s the opportunity to make a decision on a case by case basis. In recent decades, state governments have enacted sweeping changes in law and policy that have profoundly affected the juvenile justice landscape in the United States. Both state and federal legislative responses to juvenile crime have focused on sending more and younger children to adult criminal court. Congress provided additional encouragement to this trend in 1998 by making some federal grants contingent on states having policies allowing for the prosecution of those over the age of 14 as adults. But despite all the changes made, policymakers lack information about how front line juvenile justice professionals, those individuals responsible for implementing these changes, are most likely to be affected by them. There have also been five policies and practices which have been effective in reducing crime: mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, sex offender treatment, reentry services and planning and coordination of juvenile justice with wraparound services (Howell, 2003). By allowing these laws to be put on the books, the social policy of the country has given efforts to “shape the overall quality of life in a society, the living conditions of its members, and their relations to one another and to society as a whole.” (Popple, P.R. pg. 21.).
History of the Issue:

The juvenile court system is based on the concept that the court has the role of parens patriae, Latin for “Parent of the Nation,” a legal guardian, to act in the best interest of the child. The juvenile court was first established in Cook County, Chicago Illinois in 1899, with the intentions of investigating, diagnosing, and prescribing treatment to young offenders, in order to rehabilitate and not necessarily punish (Beresford 2000). Emphasizing treatment, supervision, and control, the goal of the juvenile court was “to resolve the wayward youth’s family, social, and personal problems and prepare the youth to be a healthy productive and law abiding adult” (Fagan & Deschenes 1990). A distinction to be made between the juvenile courts and adult courts is that juvenile proceedings are to be considered civil as opposed to criminal, therefore supposedly less stigmatizing (Champion & Mays 1991). Additionally, the juvenile court provides special rights and immunities for children such as a shielding from publicity, detention only among other juvenile, and the retention of certain future civil rights (Kent v. U.S. 1966). For more than half of the 20th century, the Juvenile Court had jurisdiction over offenders under the age of 18, with the exception of cases waived to criminal court after a full investigation was made to decide whether or not a youth offender was fit for the juvenile court process. In Kent v. U.S. (1966), the first major change in juvenile justice took place, creating guidelines for due process in the juvenile court requiring fitness hearings, right to counsel, and a statement of reasons by the court for any wavier decision. A waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction is used under certain circumstances to transfer a child’s case from the juvenile system to the criminal court system.

In 1974, the United States had begun to develop a momentum toward preventing delinquency, deinstitutionalizing juveniles who were already in the system, and keeping juvenile offenders separate from adults. States could receive funds made available if they removed juveniles from secure detention and correctional facilities. They also had to separate juvenile delinquents from convicted adults (Humanizing the Prisons, 1911). In the late 1990s, America began to face a growing concern over highly publicized and violent juvenile crime. This incited many states to pass laws which would allow for juveniles as young as thirteen to be tried as an adult. In March 2000, California passed such a law, Proposition 21. Under Proposition 21,known as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, a child as young as 14 years of age could be prosecuted directly in adult court under the Welfare and Institutions Code section 707 (d)(2). The crimes which carry life imprisonment or death if they are prosecuted as an adult, they also include offenses involving personal use of a firearm in the commission of offense (PC 12022.5). As ruled in Kent, due process is required in the judicial waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction. When a child is arrested and has committed one of the violent offenses enumerated in Welfare and Institutions section 707 (b) after reaching the age 14 to 16, the District Attorney’s Office has 48 hours to decide whether or not to request a fitness hearing. After the fitness hearing is requested, the defendant usually waives his or her rights to a speedy trial so that both counsels can adequately prepare their arguments for the fitness hearing. While the People and the Defense are working out their arguments, the probation department prepares its own fitness report for the juvenile. If a juvenile is deemed fit to be tried as an adult, he or she remains under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system. If the judge decides that a child is unfit, the juvenile is then tried in the criminal court (California Welfare and Institutions Code, section 707 (2001). The Proposition also means that juvenile criminal records will no longer be expunged. Subsequently, depending on the charges and if the case is filed in juvenile or criminal court, incarceration is almost mandatory and rehabilitative programs are out of the question (Ochoa, 2000).
Answer to the Question:
I am in favor of trying juveniles as adults when they commit a felony. When in adult court, a juvenile is subject to more severe sentencing, including life sentences. Judges in adult court can hand out a wider range of punishment and treatment options, such as imposing a curfew or ordering counseling instead of jail time. They can also serve time in adult jail or prison, rather than in a juvenile court detention center. A conviction in adult criminal court carries more social stigma than a juvenile court judgment does and adult criminal records are harder to seal than juvenile court records. Just because they are under the age of 18, should not mean they are not able to deal with the consequences of their actions. Society also needs to realize, the current juvenile crime problem requires that we punish juvenile offenders in order to deter the next generation of juveniles from becoming predators.

Perspectives & Analysis of Policy:
A Justice Department study which was released in July of 2000 indicates violent juvenile offenders are more likely to serve out their sentences in an adult prison than they would have back in 1985. With over two million adults who are currently incarcerated in prison, the number of juveniles in an adult facility is a miniscule percentage; 7,400 juvenile offenders were serving time in an adult facility as of 1997. The number, however, is more than double that of the number of juveniles in adult prisons in 1985 (Anderson, D. 1998). When California passed Proposition 21 in 2000, it had the backers of Crime Victims United, The D.A.’s Association and CA. Police Chiefs Association. It was their contention juveniles should not be excused for murder, rape or any other violent act. It also eliminated informal probation for juveniles committing felonies, required registration for gang related offenses and making offenders subject to longer sentences. Despite great strides made recently in the war against adult crime, California’s Department of Justice has shown violent crimes (murder, rape, attempted murder and robberies) had risen an astounding 60.6% between 1983 and 1998. The F.B.I. estimates the California juvenile population will increase by more than 33% over the next fifteen years, reinforcing that Proposition 21 was needed and will have an effect on the future of the Juvenile Justice System. Among those against incarcerating juveniles as adults are the A.C.L.U., Basic Human Rights Groups and Critical Resistance Youth Force Coalition. It is their contention, once in the adult system, juveniles tried as adults have minimal opportunities to receive educational, vocational or other rehabilitative services. The legislative Analyst’s Office report in 2008 showed the state’s prisons enroll only 54,000 of the 173,000 inmates in educational programs, and only one half of those 27,000 inmates are in core traditional academic and vocational training programs most likely to improve educational attainment and employability upon their release on paroles to the community (California Office of the Legislative Analyst, 2008). There is also a consensus to improve the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system to allow more inmates the opportunity to be rehabilitated and put back into society. In February, 2001, state Court of Appeal in San Diego invalidated provisions of the law requiring 14 -17 year-olds to be tried in the adult courts. These groups also found substantial racial disparities in life without parole given to juveniles. On average, they found, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youths. On May, 6th 2009, the Juvenile justice Accountability and Improvement Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives to help offer youth offender’s meaningful opportunities for parole after serving 15 years of a life sentence (Commonweal Juvenile Justice Project, 2007).

Impact of Policy and Analysis:
As it stands today, approximately 93,000 young people are held in juvenile justice facilities across the United States. Seventy percent of these youth are held in state-funded, post adjudication, residential facilities, at an average cost of $240.99 per day per youth. With states facing serious budgetary constraints, it is an opportune time for policymakers to consider ways to reduce juvenile justice spending that won’t compromise public safety (American Correctional Association, 2008). Evidence is growing that there are cost-effective policies and programs for intervening in the lives of delinquent youth which actually improve community safety and outcomes for children. Due to the high costs of incarcerating juveniles in the adult system, California has had to redirect funds once spent on large residential facilities, and spending those dollars on less expensive, more effective programs to curb reoffending and reducing juvenile crime. The types and numbers of offenses being formally handled by the juvenile courts have made changes in the last 10 years. In 2005, 29 percent of all delinquent cases handled by the juvenile court were public order offenses. This is an increase of 8 percentage points from 10 years ago. About two out of every three (67 percent) of the cases involve a non-person offense. But despite recent improvements, the caseloads of the juvenile justice system have increased by half million cases in the last 20 years (Stahl, A. Finnegan, T. & Kang, W.). This increase is a burden on an already overcrowded juvenile justice system; it’s also detriment to juveniles who may be better served in the community and without the intervention of the courts. In 2007, as part of a budget “trailer bill,” the governor signed legislation that bans commitments of youth adjudicated of nonviolent offenses to state-run residential facilities. It also blocks grants established under the bill which can provide an average of $130,000 per youth eligible to be placed in community-based alternatives.

Another study in 2007 was prepared which found that a young person with mental illness can cost at least $18,800 more than other juveniles. An analysis in the Journal of Justice and Detention Services suggests that poor mental health and conditions of detention make for higher rates of depression and suicide rates more prevalent. Another portion of the current policy, one most people are not aware of, is the rise in juvenile female arrests. In 2008, according to a December 2009 bulletin, there were 629,800 arrests. There has also been an increase in females entering the juvenile justice system for different reasons than boys. They commit a quarter less crimes than their counterparts and their crimes are non-violent from running away, truancy, possession of alcohol and curfew violations. At the time of their arrest, over three quarters have already experiences emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. The majority of incarcerated girls need counseling and mental health service. Many states are establishing special commissions on gender responsive programming for high risk and system involved girls. More types of this legislation are needed in state legislatures across the country. As a society which can fail to protect girls on the outside, once they are incarcerated, it is up to society to provide the skills and services to help them build better lives as independent adults.

The policy as it stands is a good one. Juvenile crime has mushroomed into an enormous dilemma for the legal system. The juvenile court system needs to devote more time to backing up what the judicial system stands for. In the past, the courts have allowed juveniles off the hook for committing crimes instead of arraigning them as adults. Moreover, a boom in juvenile crime poses a threat to the way that the judicial system conducts itself. Looking across the range of measures enacted between calendar years 2005 and 2007 suggests states are moving toward more progressive reforms and away from the punitive “get tough” responses that dominated juvenile justice policy in the previous decade (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006). However, the initial causes of much juvenile crime are found in the early learning experiences in the family. They involve weak family bonding and ineffective supervision, child abuse and neglect, and inconsistent and harsh discipline. There is also a large presence of gang and illegal markets which expose juveniles to violence, negative role models, and possible rewards for youthful involvement in violent criminal activities. Alcohol and guns also play a part in violent behavior. In addition, those who grow up in poverty and who have parents, or are themselves unemployed, will more easily turn to violence in their transition into adulthood. Schools also play a part in generating juvenile violence. We as a country need to look at how peer pressure has caused an onset of serious violent behavior with juveniles thinking they need to prove themselves. Before Proposition 21 was passed, juveniles under the age of 18 were recruited by adults to commit crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, robbery and drug running. Juveniles were recruited because it was known if they got caught, the most they would do would be serve time in the California Youth Authority until the age of 25. Now they are able to be prosecuted and serve as much time as the law will allow. With the Juvenile Justice System cracking down on sentencing, the number of people under 18 arrested dropped from 1,224 in 1997 to 710 in 2006 (Layzell, 2004). That is a 42% decline, showing that treating juveniles as adults has had an enormous impact on juvenile crime.

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