Children have been described as our future, our greatest resource, and our hope for a better tomorrow. For many Americans, though, children invoke fear. They represent violence, a segment of society lacking in self-control and devoid of ethics and morals, and the failure of the family to instill traditional values, top among them being the value of human life and respect for others.
Fear of crime, especially random violence perpetrated by young Americans, is among the nation’s greatest concerns. It has served as the motivation for countless numbers of people to change their lifestyles, take self-defense classes, install home security systems, and carry handguns for protection. Moreover, fear of crime has influenced politicians and laypersons to adopt the position that a conservative justice system, which seeks to punish and deter, holds the most promise in curtailing juvenile crime.
Many theories concerning the causes of juvenile crime focus either on the individual or on society as the major contributing influence. Theories centering on the individual suggest that children engage in criminal behavior because they were not sufficiently penalized for previous delinquent acts or that they have learned criminal behavior through interaction with others. A person who becomes socially alienated may be more inclined to commit a criminal act.
Families have also experienced changes within the last 25 years. More families consist of one-parent households or two working parents. Consequently, children are likely to have less supervision at home than was common in the traditional family structure. This lack of parental supervision is thought to be an influence on juvenile crime rates. Other identifiable causes of delinquent acts include frustration or failure in school, the increased availability of drugs and alcohol, and the growing incidence of child abuse and child neglect. All these conditions tend to increase the probability of a child committing a criminal act, although a direct causal relationship has not yet been established
Most theories of juvenile delinquency have focused on children from disadvantaged families, ignoring the fact that children from affluent homes also commit crimes. The latter may commit crimes because of the lack of adequate parental control, delays in achieving adult status, and hedonistic tendencies. All theories, however, are tentative and are subject to criticism. I ask if these theories should be an excuse?
Children’s offenses typically include delinquent acts, which would be considered crimes if committed by adults. Waiving juveniles to criminal (adult) court and imposing criminal penalties, according to the conservative position, are effective ways for society to express outrage for the transgressions of “out-of-control” youth and to placate its desire for retribution. Others, however, contend that treating juveniles as adults is going too far. Although many of these juveniles are incarcerated for their crimes, which the law allows, they often are the easy victims of homosexual rape and other forms of violence at the hands of hardened adult criminals.
In truth, the problem isn’t quite as pressing as it was a few years ago. With crime rates dropping, so is juvenile crime. But felonies by kids had exploded over the previous 10 years, a legacy of the crack trade and armed gangs, so the recent decline is still a dip in a high plateau. From 1985 to 1995, juvenile arrests for violent crimes rose 67%. Perhaps a fifth of all violent crimes is the work of teens.
Some criminologists are also warning that a new wave of “superpredators” will soon hit the streets. Congress wants to make it easier to try juveniles accused of violent crimes as adults and to incarcerate them in adult prisons. States that want the federal dollars would have to make prosecutors and not judges the ones who decide whether a teenager charged with a serious violent felony or drug offense should be tried as an adult. To demonstrate that crimes really do carry punishments, states would also have to impose a rising scale of “graduated sanctions” for all juvenile offenses, beginning with the first, and keep adult-style criminal records on juvenile offenders. Under the present system, most such records are often closed, meaning prosecutors can’t learn whether an accused youth is a repeat offender.
Altogether, some 12,300 youths are prosecuted as adults each year in state courts. That is about 9% of all juveniles arrested for violent crimes and a 70% increase over the number who were tried as adults a decade ago. Those numbers are steadily climbing further perhaps proving that if the age was lowered we could skip a lot of this process. Child-welfare advocates say that would effectively dissolve the separate system of justice for kids that dates to 1899, when Chicago established the nation’s first juvenile court.
Supporters say they correct a problem created in 1974, when new legislation channeled nearly all young offenders to the juvenile system. What still isn’t clear is whether moving young criminals back to adult courts has much impact on crime. The present-day controversy surrounding waivers appears to be a consequence of at least two factors converging. First, the definitions of childhood and age-appropriate behavior are in a state of flux. Young people are said to be more predisposed toward violence today than they were in the past. National crime data sources seem to support this notion. Violent juvenile crime has increased by nearly 70% since 1986. Moreover, the violence perpetrated by juveniles is portrayed by the mass media as being more heinous than at any other time in history. People are fearful of falling victim to a generation that seemingly holds beliefs and values that diverge drastically from those of normative society.
Second, the “get tough” approach to dealing with law violators (as seen throughout the criminal justice system) increasingly is being applied to juvenile offenders as well. Although a conservative approach to juvenile crime is not new, it is in sharp contrast to the predominant way in which the juvenile justice system has responded to youthful offenders in the U.S. for nearly 100 years. While it is true that waivers have been in existence for more than 70 years, they are used more today than in the past. This has drawn attention to how society’s response to juvenile offenders is changing from primarily being oriented toward rehabilitation to increasingly becoming prone to subjecting juveniles to conservative criminal court practices. Every state and the District of Columbia have at least one provision (some states have as many as three) to waive certain juveniles to criminal court. Juveniles may become “legal adults” through judicial waiver, prosecutorial discretion, or statutory exclusion. A judicial waiver involves the juvenile court waiving jurisdiction over a case and sending it to criminal court for prosecution. In all but three states, juvenile court judges have been entrusted with the power to waive juveniles to criminal court. Prosecutorial discretion (also known as concurrent jurisdiction) refers to the prosecutor deciding in which court, juvenile or criminal, charges will be filed. Ten states and the District of Columbia give prosecutors this authority. Statutory exclusion involves state legislatures designating certain offenses for which criminal prosecution is required.
In the past, waiving juveniles to criminal court was considered an option after all other avenues of treatment in the juvenile court had been explored. Today, the situation is drastically different. The conservative environment that currently exists not only makes it more acceptable, it is an expectation that judges and prosecutors will act decisively by waiving certain juveniles to criminal court. Hence, waivers no longer are viewed as a last resort. Why not take it a step further and avoid juvenile court altogether. Of course waiving juveniles to criminal court is not the answer to the crime situation. At best, waivers are a short-term solution to a complex social condition that will not be simplified by transferring juveniles to the jurisdiction of the criminal court. At best, they merely serve to mollify the public’s desire for retribution. After all, the majority of those juveniles waived to criminal court will re-enter society stigmatized by their criminal label and, in all likelihood, more dangerous than they were before being sanctioned as adults. This is especially true of youths that have served time in prison alongside adults.
Waiving juveniles to criminal court often is justified on the grounds that they are deserving of more punitive criminal court sanctions and that the “get tough” approach to fighting crime will serve to deter future criminal conduct. Decades of research have yielded mixed findings regarding whether juveniles are sentenced more harshly by criminal courts and are less likely to recidivate. Most studies indicate that juveniles waived to criminal court do not receive substantially more punitive sanctions. Of those incarcerated, most receive terms of confinement comparable to those imposed in juvenile court.
Youths who have not responded to traditional juvenile court intervention efforts or have demonstrated an unwillingness to abide by the rules of nonsecure community-based treatment efforts would also be waived to adult courts under current rules. Obviously this juvenile system does not work for these individuals. Nevertheless, it holds the promise of returning children to their natural and rightful position as our future, our greatest resource, and our hope for a better tomorrow.
Under Anglo-American law, a crime is an illegal act committed by a person who has criminal intent. A long-standing presumption held that, although a person of almost any age can commit a criminal act, children under 14 years old were unlikely to have criminal intent. So I ask, why shouldn’t the juvenile court jurisdiction be lowered to 14 years? The public appears much more aware of juvenile crime today than in the past; this is due in part to more thorough reporting techniques and greater emphasis on publicizing delinquent acts in the media.
The juvenile justice system tries to treat and rehabilitate youngsters who become involved in delinquency. The methods can be categorized as community treatment, residential treatment, nonresidential community treatment, and institutionalization. It is important to point out that no specific treatment has been proven the most effective form. Effectiveness is typically measured by the percentage of children treated who subsequently commit additional criminal acts. The recidivism rates for all forms of treatment, however, are about the same. That a large percentage of delinquent acts are never discovered further complicates this measurement. Thus, an absence of subsequent reported delinquent acts by a treated child may mean nothing more than that the child was not caught. That is why I feel lowering the age might be very effectiveWorks Cited
Hindelang, Michael J. Measuring Delinquency. Sage, 1981
Prescott, Peter S. The Child Savers: Juvenile Justice Observed. Knopf, 1981
Eldefonso, Edward. Law Enforcement and the Youthful Offender. Wiley, 4th ed.,
Chang, Dae H. and Janeksela, Galan. Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice: Comparative and International Perspectives. Touchstone, 1993
Gido, Rosemary. Criminal Justice Policy Review Journal, Vol. 9, Num. 1