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Update The Juvenile Justice Systems - Now!
By William Sturgeon
Published: 08/28/2010

Under arrest This article may cause discomfort or perhaps even anger among some people in the Juvenile Justice Community. Let me start by saying, I believe that the current American Juvenile Justice System is outdated. In my opinion, many of the Juvenile Justice Systems are still employing social work principles and treatment methodologies of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and the 1980’s. - in short, the Father Flanagan (Founder of Boy’s Town) philosophy: “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” [1], when in reality there are some really bad boys and girls.

The incorrigible juveniles, runaways, habitual truants, etc., that composed the juvenile delinquent population of the past are not the offenders filling juvenile institutions today. Many of today’s juvenile offenders have committed violent crimes and require a different type of incarceration that includes intensive (personalized) treatment and educational programs. As a society, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye on these out of control juveniles.

I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and I knew some boys who were sent to reform school for excessive truancy, car theft, and petty theft. Today, these crimes would not even get a second look by most criminal justice agencies. As a police sergeant in the 1970’s, I worked extensively with juveniles. Then in the mid-1990’s, I once again had the opportunity to work with juveniles who had been adjudicated as adults and sentenced to adult prisons. It was working with the sad and difficult youthful offenders’ population that I came to the realization that the current Juvenile Justice System was missing its mark. I spent hours interviewing and just talking with these youthful offenders, listening to their stories of how they could manipulate the juvenile system, the school system, and their parents (if the parents even played any role in their lives).

What I believe is needed for the Juvenile Justice System is a comprehensive overhaul where those juveniles who are convicted of minor offenses and are under a certain age can receive the care that they need in a juvenile facility. Additionally, I believe that there needs to be another stage, a hybrid youthful offender/adult correctional system that would concentrate on the needs of youthful offenders. Youth offenders are persons between the ages of thirteen and nineteen who have committed serious crimes. This hybrid correctional system, using data (good and bad) that has been collected from youthful offender programs in adult facilities, and high security juvenile facilities, would be created as an entirely new correctional environment, to include programming where these violent youthful offenders could be incarcerated.

In cases that involve this juvenile population, the criminal justice system has one and perhaps two chances to help these juveniles get their lives straightened out. If the Criminal Justice System fails, many of these juveniles will follow a path of crime doing life (in jails and prisons) on the installment plan (2 years here, 5 years there, etc.).

To develop this hybrid youthful offender correctional system, there will need to be a basic change in the way society, especially in the criminal justice system, views juveniles who commit serious crimes. Since its inception the juvenile court has metered out “justice” while adhering to the parens patriae philosophy (A doctrine that grants the inherent power and authority of the state to protect persons who are legally unable to act on their own behalf.)[2]

Some basic changes that I would recommend when dealing with this population are:
  • The title for offenders twelve years of age or under would be juveniles.
  • The title for offenders thirteen to nineteen would be youthful offenders.
  • There should be Extensive “Baseline Testing” upon entry into the CJ formal system. What I mean by “Baseline Testing” is the development of a comprehensive understanding of the offender. The “Baseline Testing” package should include; cognitive, psychosocial, extensive physical, dental, and emotional. It is my deep seeded belief that with this comprehensive testing the CJ system would have a complete picture of the offender and his/her needs. If this testing is not conducted, I believe, we are just throwing good money away. Too often the criminal justice system uses the shotgun approach to treatment; they put everyone through the same programs, rather than tailoring the programs to the needs of the offenders. Yes, it is expensive, but so is having the same people come back to prison over and over.

There are those who will disagree with this approach to re-tooling the Juvenile Justice System to meet the needs of today’s youth. I believe that my approach is worth a serious try. There should be an evaluation tool built into the program that measures the success of each element of the program.

Some additional thoughts for a youthful offender program are:
  • Develop “highly structured” programs where initially the offender(s) day is highly structured. As the offenders progress through the program, the structure begins to be taken away.
  • Integrate educational programs (academic, technical, and vocational) into the youthful offender program; this is crucial. Rules of the school must be strictly enforced and offenders can receive official write-ups for both academic and behavior issues.
  • Develop a comprehensive reentry program that is highly structured. The re-entry program must have all of the necessary elements in place and be operational prior to the youthful offenders’ release. One of the elements that should be part of a reentry program is the ability for offenders to call back to the institution and speak to institutional personnel with whom they had worked when they were incarcerated. Most correctional agencies have policies and procedures about communicating with offenders after they have left the institution, so there would have to be some new policies and procedures clearly outlining how the staff would conduct themselves when dealing with youthful offenders who have been released. (My rationale for recommending this post incarceration communication is because the institutional personnel build relationships with these youthful offenders and can give them guidance even after their release.)
  • When appropriate, youthful offenders should be permitted to live on their own. There are some people who think I have lost my mind by suggesting that youthful offenders be permitted to live apart from their parents, etc. Well, I am a realist and in various cases the offender’s parents are part of their problem (the parents are addicts, violent and abusive, and/or involved in criminal activities). The offenders’ parole officers could conduct unannounced checks on them to insure that they are following the rules.
  • Provide specialized training for all staff who will be working with youthful offenders. The areas that I believe must be part of this specialized training are:

    • Adolescent Development
    • Conflict Resolution
    • Goal setting
    • Tattoo removal program
    • Anti-gang programs

The time to make the changes in the Juvenile Justice System is now. Most of the current state systems are struggling to keep their heads above water. They (the states) continue to fall further and further behind in treating, rehabilitating, or punishing violent juvenile offenders. I have given up looking at statistics because I no longer believe them. News, web sites, and common sense tell us that street gangs are growing larger and spreading into suburban and rural communities.

As an example: according to the WIKI research web site, “16-24 for males however it is only an average as they are at their peak strength at this age.” [3] People who work with street gangs report that the street gangs are recruiting younger or junior members to their gangs. They do this to take advantage of the Juvenile Justice System and the way it treats juvenile offenders.

Society has the right to be safe from violent youth. The Juvenile Justice System should not be a swinging door where offenders released are no better, perhaps worse, than when they were incarcerated. States have to stop trying to conduct youthful offenders rehabilitation on the “cheap”. This new Youthful Offender Program that I am proposing will not be cheap to initiate and operate. What must be considered is what is being spent on incarcerating adults and juveniles today; furthermore, there must be evaluation methodologies in place prior to initiating this new Youthful Offender Program.

It has been over 100 years since the Juvenile Justice System has had an intensive comprehensive up-dating. Recently there was a news article that reported that girls are reaching puberty at an earlier age. “New research adds further evidence that girls are entering puberty at younger and younger ages, with implications for their physical and mental health. By 8-years-old, more than 1-in-10 girls have already begun developing breasts, which marks the technical start of puberty for girls, according to a new study published Monday in the Journal of Pediatrics. [4] The street gangs are recruiting younger or “junior” members to gangs. They do this to take advantage of the Juvenile Justice System because it is more lenient in the way it treats juvenile offenders.

I truly believe that an updating of the Juvenile Justice System is necessary. Furthermore, I believe that Juvenile Justice Systems need to incorporate a Youthful Offender Program in their incarceration and treatment model. The kids of today are sophisticated when it comes to “street smarts”. The Juvenile Justice Systems must adapt to the changes in society.
  1. http://www.historyireland.com/volumes/volume12/issue1/features/?id=301
  2. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Parens+Patriae
  3. http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_age_group_is_most_likely_to_commit_a_crime
  4. http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748704268004575417442626829952.html

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