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Juvenile Justice System
From: Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,964 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1580L
The juvenile justice system in the United States refers to the institutions that enforce laws applying to minors, determine the guilt of
juveniles accused of crimes, impose punishments, and seek to rehabilitate young people involved in criminal activity. Juvenile courts
also handle cases involving abused or neglected children. Until the country’s first juvenile court was established in Chicago, Illinois, in
1899, minors over the age of seven entered the same criminal justice system as adults, with other jurisdictions introducing juvenile
courts in subsequent years. The experiences of an accused juvenile can vary significantly depending on where and how they are
prosecuted. Each state sets its own age of majority, which refers to the age at which a person is considered an adult under the law.
As of 2018, forty-five states identify individuals age eighteen and older as adults while five states include offenders as young as
seventeen as adults. In July 2018 Vermont began allowing individuals under the age of twenty-one, pending court approval, to be
tried as juveniles, an experimental move that other states are considering. The policy shift marks a first step in the state’s efforts to
reform its approach to juvenile justice, which include plans to automatically direct eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds accused of
nonviolent offenses to juvenile court in 2020 and 2022, respectively.
Offenders sentenced in the juvenile justice system can face punishments like those imposed on adult offenders for similar crimes,
such as probation, community service, fines, electronic monitoring and incarceration, which can include house arrest or imprisonment
in a juvenile facility. If tried as adults, offenders can be placed in adult facilities. In addition, juveniles convicted of sex crimes can be
placed on a sex offender registry. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), however, the US Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juvenile
offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Seven years later, in its joint review of Miller
v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs (2012), the court decided that sentencing a minor to life imprisonment without the possibility of
parole similarly violated the Eighth Amendment.
Punishments can have lasting effects on juvenile offenders, and minors who become involved in the juvenile justice system often
become involved again as adults. Additionally, social justice activists have drawn attention to disparities in juvenile cases based on
race, gender, sexuality, and economic background. Proponents of reforming the juvenile justice system contend that people should
not have their lives completely derailed for errors in judgment made during their youth.
Concerns about the impact of the justice system have prompted states to test alternatives to traditional enforcement, particularly for
nonviolent crimes. Some alternatives involve trying first-time misdemeanor offenders in teen court, also called peer court, in which
teenage volunteers undergo training to serve as the judges, juries, bailiffs, and advocates in court settings where sentences are
determined by peers from the offender’s same age group. Other recommendations involve providing offenders with opportunities to
interact with the victims of their crimes, improve themselves through education and mentorship, and become more engaged with their
local community. In addition to improving rehabilitation rates, lawmakers, educators, and mental health professionals have stressed
the benefits of policy initiatives that aim to prevent young people from engaging in criminal behavior by either working with young
people directly or addressing the social and economic factors that may contribute to juvenile delinquency.
When people who are not legally considered adults are accused of a crime, they typically enter the juvenile justice system
where they may face more lenient punishments than adults accused of the same crime.
Because incarceration and other interactions with the criminal justice system can have long-lasting effects on a juvenile
offender, some jurisdictions have pursued alternatives to traditional punishments.
The age of majority—which refers to the age in which a person is considered an adult—varies, with most states setting
seventeen or eighteen as the age of majority. As of 2018 Vermont allows some nonviolent offenders as old as twenty-one to
be tried as juveniles with court approval, a move that is under consideration by others states.
Juvenile offenders often become involved with the justice system for committing status offenses, which refer to crimes that
can only be committed by members of a specific group. Examples include curfew violations, underage drinking, and
possession of a firearm by a minor.
First emerging in the 1990s, zero-tolerance policies have required schools to impose harsh punishments and refer some
students to law enforcement. Critics of these policies contend that they are excessive and can be linked to future criminal
Racial disparities in the juvenile justice system have sparked concerns that law enforcement, school educators, and the
system itself may be biased against minorities.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) estimates that law enforcement made 809,700 juvenile arrests in
2017, a 5 percent drop from the previous year and 59 percent drop from ten years earlier. Though disagreement exists about what
caused the significant decline in arrests, experts have speculated that it has likely been caused by juveniles committing fewer crimes
and states adopting policies that favor alternatives to traditional criminal justice for juvenile cases. In its analysis of 2017 juvenile
arrests, the OJJDP found that female offenders constituted 29 percent of arrests despite accounting for 49 percent of Americans
under the age of eighteen. Racial disparities are similarly stark, with black offenders constituting 35 percent of arrests while
accounting for less than 17 percent of Americans under the age of eighteen. White offenders constituted 62 percent of arrests,
however, while accounting for 75 percent of Americans under the age of eighteen. The W. Haywood Burns Institute for Justice
Fairness and Equity reports sharper racial disparities in incarceration rates, noting that 69 percent of incarcerated juveniles in 2015
were racial minorities. The Burns Institute found that black minors were five times more likely to end up incarcerated than their white
counterparts while Native American and Latino juveniles also faced increased likelihoods of being jailed.
Accounting for approximately 20 percent of juvenile arrests, transgressions that can only be committed by a juvenile, such as
underage drinking or possession of a firearm by a minor, fall under the category of status offenses, which refer to behaviors that the
law prohibits a specific group of people from engaging in. Though status offenses typically refer to actions that minors are prohibited
from taking, these offenses can be applied to any group—for example, earlier laws that applied only to African Americans or other
groups. Laws applied exclusively to minors are often motivated by a desire to protect young people and their future interests, such as
those outlawing truancy, which refers to unjustified absence from school, or those imposing a mandatory curfew.
Young people can also be arrested for conduct deemed illegal for adults, such as theft, assault, and arson. If the offender is tried as a
juvenile, the crime is considered a juvenile delinquency offense. For some crimes of a violent or sexual nature like murder and rape,
however, a court may determine that the offender should be tried as an adult. When tried as a juvenile, the alleged offender attends
an adjudication hearing, which functions like a trial, to determine whether the charges against the accused are valid, and the court
may offer sentences that aim to limit the minor’s involvement with the criminal justice system. Commonly referred to as diversionary
programs, these sentences may include community service, counseling, electronic monitoring, fines, or verbal warnings. In cases
where the offender avoids additional violations and meets any other required conditions, he or she may have their records sealed or
expunged. Juveniles sentenced to incarceration may be held on house arrest or placed in a juvenile detention center, adult
correctional facility, group home, or residential mental health treatment facility. If tried as an adult, however, the offender is less likely
to be offered diversionary programs and may be placed in adult jail.
Critical Thinking Questions
What alternatives to traditional criminal justice are available to juvenile offenders, and do you think they can be effective at
rehabilitating these offenders?
How have the policies of the War on Drugs influenced the functioning of the juvenile justice system?
In your opinion, should the government prioritize its efforts to rehabilitate juvenile offenders over its efforts to protect the
public from the threat posed by these offenders? Explain your answer.
Criticisms of the Juvenile Justice System
In the 1990s the government focused significant attention on reducing juvenile delinquency. Lawmakers and the news media
expressed concern that young criminals posed an urgent public safety risk, suggesting the emergence of a new class of juvenile
offender referred to as “super-predators.” State and local governments adopted policies to get tough on crime while the federal
government advanced its War on Drugs, a campaign originally launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. In 1994 Congress
passed the Gun Free Schools Act requiring schools that receive federal funding to impose a yearlong expulsion on any student who
brings a firearm on campus. This mandatory punishment led to the adoption of harsher school discipline policies, commonly referred
to as zero-tolerance policies, which began by imposing mandatory suspensions or expulsions to students in possession of weapons
or illegal drugs. Some schools have enforced such punishments for students found in possession of seemingly innocuous items, such
as butter knives, toy guns, and over-the-counter medication. In addition to the disruptive punishments of suspensions and expulsions,
schools began referring students to law enforcement rather than handling discipline cases internally. Education experts have noted
an increased reliance on law enforcement throughout the twenty-first century as schools began referring students for lesser offenses,
such as fighting, vandalism, dress code violations, and tardiness. The rise in mass violence events at schools has spurred further
concerns about school safety, leading to a dramatic increase in schools stationing law enforcement officers on campus.
Students began to have more interactions with law enforcement as behavior previously recognized as constituting discipline issues
began to be identified as criminal. For students disciplined under such policies, the likelihood of future involvement in the criminal
justice system increased. Social justice activists have observed that these policies disproportionately affect students of color and
could be linked to racial disparities in academic achievement, future earnings, and likelihood of future incarceration. This
phenomenon, commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, has been characterized as preventing young people from getting
an education and instead preparing them for institutional life. Critics of zero-tolerance policies and the juvenile justice system stress
that children and adolescents are in processes of social and intellectual development that are undermined by harsh punishments and
disruptions in their education.
To address the systemic failings and racial disparities within the juvenile justice system, educators, activists, and parents have urged
lawmakers to implement significant reforms to state and federal policies, asserting that the priority of juvenile justice should be
rehabilitation rather than punishment. As juvenile offenders face high risks for recidivism, critics of the juvenile justice system have
recommended alternatives to punitive sentences, such as restorative justice programs that support mediation between the offender,
victim, and community. In December 2018, as part of a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system, President Donald Trump
signed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA) into law, reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974
and introducing several reforms. The law provides new guidelines for the incarceration of young offenders, requires states to improve
their data collection, and requires that states consider scientific research regarding adolescent development in modifying and
administering their juvenile justice programs. Like the First Step Act, another criminal justice reform bill signed into the law alongside
the JJRA, the law is not expected to resolve all the inadequacies of the juvenile justice system but should be regarded as a “first step”
toward improving outcomes for juvenile offenders.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2021 Gale, a Cengage Company
Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)
“Juvenile Justice System.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints,
link.gale.com/apps/doc/PC3010999163/OVIC?u=lln_aslcc&sid=OVIC&xid=3d7a98b6. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.
Gale Document Number: GALE|PC3010999163
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