In the early 19th century, Boston mayor Josiah Quincy recognized that juveniles did not need to be punished the same as adult offenders. This was the genesis of the separation of juvenile justice as a distinct entity within the justice system. In the modern American justice system, juvenile court oversees the majority of offenses committed by those under the age of 18, although 44 states trial juveniles as adults for serious offenses, such as murder or gang-activity.
Juvenile courts were established in the early years of the 20h century, aimed at treating, rather than punishing juvenile offenders. At the time, the leading theories of juvenile justice were that their parents had failed such children. This was the Progressive Era, when ideas such as juvenile justice, along with child labor laws, defined childhood as a separate period of life. Juvenile hearings, which were frequently closed to the public, focused on the history of the offender, rather than the offense itself. Many judges personally tailored juvenile justice sentences to the child, rather than impose blanket sentences, such as life in prison.
America's juvenile justice system became a model throughout the rest of the world. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles deserved the same due process as adults. However, with a rise in juvenile crime in the 1980s, the juvenile justice system perverted, often funneling young offenders into the adult criminal justice system.
The juvenile justice system evolved under the belief that youth who commit crimes face unique circumstances that, if effectively addressed, can prevent recidivism and lead to complete diversion from the criminal justice system in adulthood. Addressing youth crime is commonly viewed as an effective means for reducing the total rate of criminal activity for society. The idea is simple: provide rehabilitation while the child is still young changing the life course for the individual and creating an adult who is capable of contributing to the community. Based on this rationale an entire system of juvenile detention centers has been created in an effort to help ensure that the future of society is improved. Although juvenile detention centers should provide an effective tool for improving youth and social outcomes there is an impetus to explore the effectiveness of these facilities in an effort to determine if they do indeed promote a reduction in recidivism and diversion from the criminal justice system as the youth ages.
Using this as a foundation for investigation, note that solid research examines the current state of juvenile detention centers in the United States. Specifically, the research should include the following:
- Background regarding the scope and purpose of operations along with a review of data regarding the outcomes that have resulted from the use of juvenile detention centers.
- Through a review of what has been noted regarding the outcomes of these programs it will be possible to draw some conclusions about the effectiveness of juvenile detention centers.
- In addition, the data should provide insight into what, if any, changes are needed to improve the system of juvenile detention in the US.
When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of juvenile detention centers in the United States the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that juvenile detention facilities are not effective. In addition to the fact that juvenile incarceration disrupts the development of the youth-leading to problems with education and employment-the environments that have developed inside of juvenile detention centers are often so violent and traumatic that vulnerable youth find it difficult if not impossible to remain resilient under these conditions. In many instances youth detained in these facilities leave with more problems than before their incarceration. As a result, youth detention centers have become a primary source of further deepening inequality, increasing recidivism rates, and leading youth to continued involvement in the criminal justice system into adulthood. Thus, there is no evidence to suggest that juvenile detention centers are effective.
Despite the inability to find any positive outcomes for juvenile detention centers, the data reviewed for this investigation does suggest that corrections officers, community leaders, and policymakers do have enough data to improve the system. While reducing the total number of youth incarcerated each year would be one step in the right direction-e.g. providing alternative sentencing methods-it is evident that changes are needed to align juvenile detention centers with theoretical foundations for developing these supports. Juvenile detention centers should be places which provide rehabilitation and support for youth rather than serving as a mirror image of their adult criminal justice counterparts. Changes can be made to the system; however this type of change would require states to invest in youth rather than simply warehousing them.
Based on this assessment it would seem that the opportunity for change is relatively low at the present time. Public resources are notably constrained and with policymakers focused on the bottom line in every yearly budget, acquiring the funding and supports needed to fix the system appears to be a significant challenge. What is perhaps most troubling about this situation is that those working in the field know what works. There is ample data demonstrating the pathway that should be selected to improve the lives of youth and society over the long-term. However, this data is continually ignored and will continue to be ignored at least in the near future. What is often missed when developing juvenile justice policies is the long-term implications of these approaches. In the end, society will continue to build its criminal class through a system of juvenile justice and corrections that does nothing more than train youth to continue to pursue a pathway of criminal behavior.