|Update The Juvenile Justice Systems - Now!|
|By William Sturgeon|
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 Let me start by saying, I believe that the current American Juvenile Justice System is outdated.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” , 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.)
Some basic changes that I would recommend when dealing with this population are:
Some additional thoughts for a youthful offender program are:
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.”  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.  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.
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