Every year in America, 1.7 million cases involving a youth offender are brought before the court, equaling about 4,600 cases every day. 1 out of every 5 of those youth is detained, entering into the juvenile justice program for varying amount of time. From starting as a system that focused primarily on punishment to striving for rehabilitative goals today, the juvenile justice system has come a long way. Criminal justice professionals work towards improving the juvenile justice system and effectively rehabilitate these young offenders.
Juvenile Justice in America
The juvenile justice system and programs have made incredible headway in methods and progress, especially considering the disorganization, severity, and ineffectiveness of its early days.
In the 1700s, children as young as seven could be tried in a criminal court, and if convicted, could serve time within an adult incarceration environment. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that youth offender reform began to appear, and The House of Refuge opened its doors in 1824 in New York as a juvenile-only house of reform. Other states quickly followed, and the idea began to spread that punishment is simply not as effective in the long term as rehabilitation.
Even with a growing advocacy for juvenile rights in criminal proceedings, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that youth offenders were granted constitutional legal rights within the court system. In 1967, the In re Gault decision granted a number of rights to juvenile offenders; followed by the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act in 1968, prompting every state to dedicate planning to juvenile delinquency prevention.
1974 saw a revised version of that act, which provided separation between youth and adult offenders, leading to the formation of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Harsher laws for youth offenders began in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but today’s criminal justice system is attempting to place a renewed emphasis on deinstitutionalizing the juvenile system and centering its efforts on offender rehabilitation.
Importance of Juvenile Justice System Today
Today, policies and programs within the juvenile justice system are intended to recognize behavioral issues in youth offenders and target strategies for creating a reformed citizen. Youth offenders are categorized by the severity of their issues, including committed offenses, risk level to public safety and individual service requirements. Youths are incarcerated or placed under close supervision, following the deficit-based model of incapacitation, deterrence and retribution, and rehabilitation.
However, the system has closely examined its problem-focused design and began making changes towards a more positive view of youth. Rather than focusing on what is wrong, some communities’ programs have started focusing on what is right. By recognizing strengths and providing alternatives to criminal activities, many communities are finding ways to stop juvenile crime before it begins.
Many judges and policymakers are advocating for early intervention; however, once in the system, opportunities still exist for turning lives around, and many new juvenile justice programs are hoping to provide a positive opportunity for this country’s troubled youth.
Improvement to Juvenile Justice System
Focus on Positive Youth Development
A growing perspective in juvenile justice is that of positive youth development, concentrating on a youth’s “sense of competency, usefulness, belonging, and influence.” Rather than the traditional deficit-based model of highlighting an offender’s flaws and wrongdoings, positive youth development chooses to accentuate optimistic views, holding on to good characteristics and strengths to encourage a better way of living. The PYD method incorporates the following:
- Assisting youth in recognizing and taking responsibility for their actions.
- Offering chances to repair any harm that resulted from their actions.
- Encouraging interaction with good role models.
- Providing solutions for better decision-making in the future.
Recognition and Treatment of Mental Illness
Recent findings highlight the number of juvenile offenders in residential facilities that are suffering from a mental illness. Two-thirds of these juveniles exuded symptoms of depression, anxiety, and aggression. The number of individuals serving time with a severe mental illness is two to four times higher than the national rate among youth.
45 percent of youth enter juvenile facilities without an initial mental health screening, greatly lessening the hopes for successful rehabilitation. Many organizations are recognizing the importance of mental health screening and treatment for youth offenders. Advocacy organizations, such as the Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Action Network, continue to push for greater efforts in mental health care provision in juvenile justice programs.
Only 45 percent of juvenile offenders within the system have at least six hours a day of school, wasting valuable time that could be used in bettering the offender for a reformed life outside of incarceration. Academic development is critical for all youth, and within the past two decades, more than 251 separate lawsuits were filed against states, charging with a lack of adequate education provision to incarcerated youth. Education provides empowerment and a higher chance for success upon release from the system, and continued activism and support is proving its worth in juvenile justice.
A continued and growing focus on opportunities for reform and rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system has hopes for lessening the number of offenders. By paying attention to positive youth development, recognizing and providing treatment for mental illness and offering sufficient educational opportunities, the juvenile justice system can reach a greater level of effectiveness in the future.
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