“Palm Beach County, Fla. -- On May 26, 2000, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill shot his teacher, Barry Grunow, with a .25 caliber handgun in school. Palm Beach County prosecutors tried Brazill as an adult for first degree murder. The jury found Brazill guilty of second-degree murder and the judge sentenced him to 28 years in an adult facility. After his release, Brazill will face two years of house arrest and five years of probation.” (Klug)
Does this sentence seem too harsh, or perhaps too lenient? Without knowing all of the details involved in the case, it may be harder to decide what would be the best thing to do with 13-year-old Brazill. What specific details would a person need to know in order to sentence him properly? Has he ever done this before? What were his motives? Is he from a rough neighborhood, living in a bad family situation? Maybe all of these things don’t matter in determining Brazill’s sentence, and he should just be punished according to his crime.
If you’re having a hard time deciding, you’re not alone. Since the juvenile court’s introduction in 1899, there have been debates over whether or not the court is effective in treating juveniles. Brazill’s case demonstrates the view that the juvenile court is not working, or is not sufficient to deal with cases as serious as Brazill’s. This is evident in the fact that he was sent to adult court as a 13-year-old as opposed to being tried in the juvenile court.
The recent shift toward trying more juveniles as adults is a plain indicator that the juvenile justice system is not working. No one will disagree with that. However, people will disagree on what the system is supposed to be doing in the first place, and how we as a nation should go about fixing it. There are many different approaches to how juveniles should be dealt with, and each approach is extremely complex. One of the main factors that causes the complexity is that with each approach comes certain doctrines on the differences between juveniles and adults. But more importantly, how these differences should affect legal policies. It will be up to voters, legislators, and communities to decide what steps we will take to curb the growing trend of juvenile crime and violence.
Imagining juvenile delinquents as our own younger siblings, or perhaps our own children gone astray will help us to make the tough decisions involved in treating juvenile delinquents. As college students, we are the next generation of voters, legislators, and community leaders. In order for us to make the best decisions for troubled adolescents we must be informed of the many ways we can go about treating juvenile delinquents. Each method of treatment is quite complicated so we must take care to understand the issues to the fullest possible extent. To ensure that juveniles delinquents are being treated fairly, we must make our decisions with as much consideration for their well being as we can, as well as keeping in mind the best interests of society. As voters, we can begin to shape policy in the ways we see fit for fighting juvenile crime and violence. Maybe some of our own preferred methods for treating children are reflected in the current views of the public toward this issue.
Presently, there is a growing trend toward treating juveniles using more punitive measures, known as the punitive approach to juvenile crime. The punitive approach is the approach that appears to be the most popular in the nation today. This isn’t surprising as the approach shares many values with our society, such as: public safety, retribution for victims of crime, and the idea that our actions should carry like consequences. Sheriff Joe Arpaio demonstrates some of these values when he says, “You commit that serious crime, you have to pay the consequences.”
Federal legislation is a primary source of support for this approach. Recently, there has been a push toward punitive legislative action as a response to the rise in juvenile crime, better known as the “get tough” movement. Advocates of the punitive approach claim that juveniles need to be shown that their actions have consequences and will not be excused. They argue that the way to show juveniles this is through harsher punishment. Supporters are more likely to see juveniles as adults as far as culpability goes, how responsible or blameworthy a person is for their actions. Punitive supporters are the people who agree with the motto: “adult crime, adult time.” They are likely to support juvenile transfer to adult systems so that they might receive stricter punishment, including incarceration in adult prisons. Advocates of the punitive approach feel that the juvenile justice system has failed to teach kids that they are responsible for their actions. It is important to note that the punitive approach sees teaching kids this lesson as a significant purpose of the juvenile justice system.
The punitive approach embraces punishment of juveniles as the solution to juvenile crime. Advocates believe that if the juvenile justice system joins the “get-tough” movement, the nation will see a decrease in crime rates. The decrease will occur because adolescents will finally see that if they commit serious crimes they will face serious consequences. As Russell Van Vleet expresses, “Rather than reducing the role of juvenile justice on the punishment end of juvenile offending, that role should be acknowledged, welcomed, and expanded.”
A direct challenge of these views and a response to their increasing popularity comes from the rehabilitative approach to solving the juvenile crime problem. Rehabilitators claim, “Punishment suppresses behavior; it doesn’t change it” (Roush & Dunlap). They believe that a more effective alternative to punishment and a better solution to juvenile crime is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation can be defined as, making one capable of becoming a useful member of society again.
The rehabilitative approach also asserts that the rehabilitative method of judgment that the juvenile court was founded on is still valid, effective, and necessary. Supporters stake their claim on the fact that the juvenile court was established when people realized that youthful offenders needed an alternative system of judgment that would allow them to be rehabilitated instead of just punished for their crimes. Russell Van Vleet admits, “The historical mission of the juvenile justice system has primarily been to rehabilitate offender, not to punish them.” Those that agree with this approach (“child savers” as they are often called) say that it is our moral obligation to rehabilitate juveniles.
The “child savers” also believe that children are very different from adults and should therefore be treated accordingly. They say, “Many youthful offenders do not understand the difference between right and wrong and are not able to accurately assess situations. This may cause them to get into trouble and/or have a despondent outlook on life” (Klug). It is clear that child savers see adolescents as less cupable than adults for their actions which is in direct opposition to the punitive approach.
Another one of the main issues the rehabilitators bring up is the idea that children are more amenable to treatment than adults. Amenability in legal practice means “the likelihood of an individual desisting from crime and/or being rehabilitated when treated with some sort of intervention.” The meaning of the word changes slightly in the field of developmental psychology where it refers to “the extent to which an individual’s nature has the possibility of changing regardless of his or her exposure to an intervention and regardless of the type of intervention that is applied” (Steinberg & Cauffman). Science seems to support the rehabilitative approach. Developmental psychologists have found that adolescents are in fact more amenable to treatment than adults (Steinberg & Cauffman). Child savers say that this is enough evidence to justify the rehabilitation of juveniles, so every effort should be taken to accomplish this goal. “Our nation’s leaders must work with advocates and key stakeholders on the national, state, and local level to incorporate the concept of rehabilitation and detention alternatives back into a juvenile justice system that has come to represent a system of hopelessness and despair for too many people” (Finley & Schindler).
Because of these beliefs, rehabilitators disagree with recent legislation that encourages punitive responses to juvenile crime, and sends kids to criminal court where they can receive harsher punishments and be placed in adult prisons. They believe that this kind of punishment is too harsh for most juveniles and ineffective at lowering recidivism rates, (the rate at which juveniles continue to commit crimes after leaving the juvenile justice system). Supporters of this belief argue, “Placing juveniles in adult prisons does not restore the victim, the community or the offender, nor does it express concern for anyone’s future. It simply reinforces the popular notion of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Supporters also say that, “Sending juveniles to the adult system denies the juvenile system the chance to address young offender’s needs” (Roush & Dunlap).
However, some would say that the juvenile justice system is incapable of meeting the needs of juvenile offenders as it currently operates. There are two approaches to this position. The first is the localization approach. Advocates of this approach value a decentralized government with a lot of community involvement, so they are likely to be Republicans. They believe that the juvenile justice system is struggling because of too much federal involvement. Shay Bilchik recognizes the value of localization. He states, “The implementation of an effective juvenile justice system, one that complements effective prevention with early intervention and graduated sanctions and that uses the tools that are available to improve system operation, can be supported and strengthened by a state and local statutory and administrative framework” (Bilchik). The localization approach does not directly support more rehabilitation or more punishment for juveniles, but instead more freedom for each state to choose what is best for its own people. “The national approach toward juvenile crime is far too convoluted and weighted with bureaucratic layers to address juvenile crime properly on a local level” (Bradshaw). Localizers are pushing for more involvement and social work in each community as a solution to the rise in juvenile crime. Wendy Kaminer shows her dislike of federal involvement when she criticizes a bill that was being debated in Congress in early 2000. She describes it as “[expanding] federal jurisdiction over juvenile crimes, continuing a dangerous trend of federalizing criminal prosecutions,” and “[subjecting] juveniles to harsh mandatory minimum sentences.” Localizers would likely agree with Kaminer’s position on the bill and add that in order to get juveniles the treatment they need, the federal government needs to step back and let communities tackle their own delinquency problems in their own way. Localization advocates would also be sure to note that in order for states to take control of their crime situations, they will need financial support. Judy A Bradshaw recognizes this need and explains what should be done about funding when she states, “Rather than being used to induce state and local agencies to comply with national goals and mandates, funding should be allocated to support effective programs developed at the state and local level.”
The second approach to the perceived inability of the juvenile court to meet the needs of its offenders is the abolition approach. This approach contends that, “No compelling reasons exist to maintain separate from an adult criminal court, a punitive juvenile court whose only remaining distinctions are its persisting procedural deficiencies” (Feld). Abolitionists believe that the juvenile justice system has failed because it has forgotten its historical commitment to rehabilitation and has instead turned to retribution and punishment, making it too much like our criminal system only with more flaws and inequality. Their solution is to combine the juvenile and criminal court to eliminate the confusion, complication, and injustice that comes from having two separate systems. They believe that juveniles often fall through the cracks of the two systems, so a combination would keep juveniles from getting away with crimes and get them the treatment they deserve. Katherine Hunt Federle adds, “[A]bolishing the juvenile court may enable us to see that children should have status as rights holders. The juvenile court’s emphasis on rehabilitation and reform not only masks the coercive effects of state intervention but also permits the state to do things to children on the grounds that it is in the children’s best interests.” She believes that combining the courts would actually be better for juveniles, which may seem like an absurd statement to many rehabilitators and children’s advocates until they understand the conditions.
According to the abolitionists’ design, the criminal court would have a “youth discount” giving juveniles more lenient sentencing options solely on account of their age. Juveniles would also continue to have the option of rehabilitation as an alternative to punishment in many cases (Feld). Federle adds a caveat to her support of the abolition of the juvenile court: “It is important that we do not make the same mistakes with the criminal court that we made with the juvenile court.”
The last approach to the problem of juvenile crime is the preventative approach. Supporters of this approach are looking at the problem from outside of the court system. They say that “the only effective long-term response to the problem of juvenile delinquency and violence lies in improving the juvenile justice system and preventing delinquency before it occurs” (Bilchik). Prevention advocates want to see a shift in focus from the treatment of juveniles after they’ve already committed a crime, to preventing crimes from happening in the first place. “Beyond programs designed to deal with youngsters after arrest, students of juvenile crime remain fascinated with the idea of intervening in the lives of children and teenagers ‘at risk’ of delinquency in hopes of averting criminal behavior before it starts” (Anderson).
Prevention advocates are fed up with the focus on juvenile justice instead of juvenile education. As former sheriff James A. Gondles notes, “It’s about trials and not about schools or discipline. It’s about punishment and not about mentoring. It’s about dropping mandates and not about day care.” Prevention supporters want to save at risk juveniles from a life of crime by emphasizing education, counseling, and social work. They recognize that children are our future and need to be protected.
All of the other approaches: rehabilitative, punitive, localization, and abolition would agree with the preventative approach but they might say that it does not go far enough and therefore, cannot stand alone. They may say that in our society, kids will likely continue to commit crimes no matter what preventative measures are taken. Something must also be done inside of the court system that is in the best interest of juveniles as well as society as a whole. Everyone agrees that the juvenile justice system isn’t stopping kids from committing crimes, regardless of whether or not they think this should be the system’s primary purpose. Something needs to be done to keep today’s youthful offenders from becoming tomorrow’s adult criminals. Understanding each approach and the beliefs and values held by each one, will better equip us to find a method for dealing with juvenile delinquents. It’s up to us to look at what works and what doesn’t in the juvenile justice system, examine our own values and beliefs, and then decide which road is the best to take in order to prevent and decrease the rate of juvenile crime.