When the Illinois juvenile court was established in 1899, the founders were more concerned about the nature of services provided to delinquent, neglected, and abused children than they were about the courts procedural fairness. They were focused on reforming the lives of juveniles through social services interventions believing that children and adolescents were fundamentally different from adults, and that rehabilitation instead of punishment would be more effective in steering them out of delinquent behaviors. Then, many juveniles were tried as adults without adults’ procedural benefits given to them. After Gualt’s case, procedural rights given to adults were extended to juveniles, example right to counselor, jury, and due process. In recent years, increases in juvenile violent crimes like homicide, and rape have led to laws minimizing the juvenile court’s jurisdiction by transferring juveniles into adult criminal court system. This has set up reactions, for and against the juvenile court system. This essay will argue that the juvenile court should be abolished, and at the same time review aspects of the juvenile justice system that are worth retaining. Barry Feld’s article on “Abolish the Juvenile Court: youthfulness, criminal responsibility, and sentencing policy,” will be referenced.
First, Feld is of the opinion that juvenile court should be abolished because of the contradictions of equal treatment of adults and juveniles in criminal court. He does not see why there should be separate courts for juvenile and adults; considering the procedural deficiencies of equal treatment for both. His argument is that juveniles should be tried in adult courts receiving adult procedural court processes (quite unlike the child saver era). He contends that juveniles should receive special sentencing that takes their youth into account. This would not just be a case by case instance, rather, it would be categorical that someone aged 14, 16 or 18 would have their sentence depend on their age- and thus their culpability. At the same time, he contends that notions like “adult time for adult crime,” are wrong, knowing that juveniles are different from adults. They are more susceptible to peer pressure, take risks but less able to comprehend repercussions. He argues that their brains are not fully developed which makes them less culpable. He suggests instead that juveniles should be tried in adult court but receive special sentencing that takes their age as militating factor. Feld’s article is a reaction to a general critique that the juvenile justice system is not working. It was created in 1899 to serve as a combined social services provider and rehabilitative agent. Till date, the juvenile justice system has not been able to satisfactorily fulfill either social services or rehabilitative goal. His position is that juveniles should not be put in adult-like jeopardy without those procedural safeguards as adults as it is being done today.
The extent to which juvenile differ from adult, and whether those difference should continue to validate the preferential justification that Feld talks about will be better left to the jury’s discretion. Since the jury weighs both mitigating and aggravating factors in criminal cases, they are in better position to decide the verdict going by the nature of the crime than the juvenile court team who are more social work oriented and therefore more human and considerate on their clients. Again, the jury who are everyday people in the society and cannot be blinded by emotion would, better address the question of responsibility and culpability. In a conceptual level of the child, culpability should limit him/her to delinquency and not crime.
Concurring on this stand, I do not see why juvenile court should continue to exist in its mal-functioning state. The existence of the juvenile court symbolizes a double standard role of the criminal justice system. It will do the system good to remodel its structures and set its priorities straight re-conceptualizing the general outlook of “juvenile.” Some juveniles are more developmentally matured than some adults and this can be reflected in their actions including crime. Just as a good number of teenagers are gifted in things like music or arts, exercising their moral and cognitive responsibilities, recognized, and held responsible for their performances, so should criminally gifted juveniles be recognized in their moral cognitive acts and be held responsible for them. The existence of the juvenile court sends across a misleading message of leniency, which encourages the “gifted” criminal juvenile to commit premeditated murder, example (Roper v Simmons 2005) where Simmons discussed plans with his accomplices advising them that they would be spared from the law because they were not adults. This questions the authenticity of the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of severe and unusual punishment to offenders. How vague the eight Amendment turns out to be if its applicability is limited to adults only leaving teenagers who commit heinous crimes to go free?
It will be more judicious to define and separate cases based on level of offences. Juveniles who commit juvenile offences (delinquency) can be handled in alternative juvenile justice system where fellow juveniles handle the proceedings. This will go a long way in de-stigmatizing juveniles who commit offences and give them the opportunity to re-address their lives in positive ways. It will foster the sense of responsibility on the juveniles that take the proceedings, take them off the street and crimes, and at the same time make them role models to other juveniles. It will also have a deterrence effect on juveniles knowing that they will appear before their peers to answer for their wrong doings. This will keep delinquency on its level instead of graduating into crime. To the government, it will save money that would otherwise been spent in court processes, giving it a new meaning and value by paying stipends to the juvenile justice panels. It will also decongest court cases giving room for preparation of criminal cases in the courtroom team. Assigning cases to the alternative juvenile justice proceedings will also enable the law enforcement agents to better understand, differentiate, and utilize their resources wisely by applying the correct procedural approach to each and every case.
In summary, if the juvenile court is abolished, and juveniles who commit criminal cases are tried with all due process according to the nature of the crime committed, juveniles will stop taking the criminal justice system for granted and juveniles will commit less adult crimes. At the same time, the alternative juvenile justice proceeding will alleviate some of the burden of the criminal court and help in re-directing the juveniles from delinquency to good citizenship.
Catherine started her career in Nigeria as a teacher and a fashion designer. She moved to the United States in 2002 working as a teacher, residential counselor, and habilitation specialist. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and masters in criminal justice. Her passion is to empower students in the development and implementation of their educational plans. She worked as a graduate assistant in economics and graduate career advisement offices respectively. Catherine desires to continue to work as an educator and students’ mentor. She has strong family ties and relates well with people of diverse backgrounds.