Why Juveniles Should be Waived to Adult Courts

Introduction

Human civilization has from ancient times acknowledged the fact that children are the future of the present civilization. Our modern era also believes in these ideals and this being the case, our society has always strived to ensure that children and the youth are given the best opportunity to excel. However, despite all the good intentions of society, there are still a number of children and youth who continue to be on the wrong side of the law. Cole and Smith (2006) note that this increase in juvenile deliquescence is a result of social, economic and other factors prevalent in this era. The policy makers have taken care to ensure that these troubled children are not left behind in the quest for a brighter future for all the children. Measures have been taken to ensure that the troubled children who are charged with offenses are afforded a chance to rectify their mistakes and become respectable citizens through rehabilitation programs. This has been through the implementation of juvenile justice systems which have been characterized by their correctional as opposed to punishment role.

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Despite the presence of a functional juvenile justice system in the country, there has been a marked increase in crime rates among children and youths. As a result of these rising rates of crime amongst youths, policymakers have pushed for the increased transfer of juvenile offenders to criminal courts for adult prosecution. This is a move that is hailed by some as being the best manner to reduce juvenile crimes and therefore safeguard society’s peace. However, there are opponents to these waivers who suggest that such moves result in a reduction in chances of rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. This paper argues that juveniles should be waived to adult courts since the juvenile court system has proved to be ineffective in handling juvenile offenders. To reinforce this assertion, this paper will perform a critical analysis of the various arguments presented both for and against transferring juveniles to adult courts. A brief overview of the juvenile court system will also be offered to act as a background for the paper.

Understanding the United States juvenile justice system

In early US history, child offenders were treated in a similar manner to adult criminals and were subjected to the same punishments indiscriminately. Several events contributed to the creation of a separate juvenile justice system. At the advent of the 19th Century, most of the United States civilization lived in a rural setting and the number of urban residents was fairly low. The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century led to a mushrooming of urban settlements and the number of children living in cities rapidly increased (Sims & Preston, 2006). Juvenile delinquency became an issue in many cities and the welfare of urban children became a primary concern. The introduction of a separate system of justice for children borrowed heavily from the ideas proposed by the 18th Century English lawyer, William Blackstone (Snyder 1995). Blackstone aimed at categorizing people based on their ages and thus drawing a line between the age where one could be held accountable for their actions and an age where one was absolved from any crime committed. To a large extent, the earlier advocates of juvenile systems considered themselves to be on a humanitarian mission championing the rights of the children.

The major difference between the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system was that juvenile courts aimed to rehabilitate rather than punish. Core to the court’s principles was the mission to help troubled children. This benevolent nature of the system led to an informal and non-adversarial approach that was not entangled in the procedural rules and formalities that characterized the criminal court systems. Sim and Preston (2006) assert that this open nature was all in line with the ultimate goal of the courts which was to guide the young offender towards life as a responsible and law-abiding adult. The lack of well-defined procedures meant that the juvenile court could take extra-legal factors in deciding on how to handle a case.

However, the flourishing era of the juvenile courts was short-lived as public confidence in the courts began to dwindle from the 1950s and the ability of the juvenile courts to succeed in their rehabilitation efforts was questioned. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 called for the deinstitutionalization of noncriminal offenders who were to be handled outside of the court system. This act also mandated that juveniles charged with criminal acts could not be locked up in the same facilities as adult offenders. In addition to this, juveniles held in correctional facilities could not have constant contact with adult offenders. The compliance with these mandates of the 1974 Act was a prerequisite to receiving Federal Formula Grant funds (Snyder, 1995). Proposals to implement a trial by jury in the juvenile systems have constantly been rejected as this would effectively abolish the already blurred distinction between juvenile and criminal proceedings thus returning the country to the pre-juvenile court’s era.

A unique characteristic of the “reformed” juvenile court systems was their ability to waiver cases to adult criminal courts. Rosenheims (2002) acknowledged that while traditionally juvenile courts placed emphasis on rehabilitation and the child’s best interest, an escalation in the number of serious violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles in 1987-1994 led policymakers to contend that tougher penalties were needed to act as deterrence to violent juvenile offenders. A juvenile transfer or waiver is “the act of moving a juvenile’s case from juvenile court to adult criminal court” (Bakken, 2007; Fagan & Zimring, 2000; Feld, 1993). This measure was created by legislatures as a means to effectively address the issue of serious juvenile offenders. However, the Juvenile justice system still maintains some of its earlier principles and characteristics. A marked difference between juvenile and criminal trials is that Juveniles are not tried by a jury in the juvenile court meaning that the judge still exercises some discretion in the ruling which is in the best interest of the offender.

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A case for Waiving Juveniles to Adult Courts

Juvenile courts are predisposed to have the best interest of the children or youths in consideration and offer some form of defense and rehabilitation for the children in juvenile facilities. As such, the underlying goal of the juvenile system is to guide the young offender towards life as a responsible and law-abiding adult (Sim & Preston, 2006). The arguments on juveniles raised by policy makers in the late 1800s resulted in a consensus that juveniles were developmentally inferior compared to adults and as such, juveniles would no longer be held criminally responsible for their actions (Feld, 1999; Bekken, 2007). While this attribute of benevolence is hailed by many proponents of the juvenile system, these benign actions have resulted in the lack of accountability for their actions by the youths. Waivers can offset this condition since as Feld comments:

The rehabilitative ideal has minimized the significance of the offenses as a dispositional criterion. The emphasis on the “best interests of the child” has weakened the connection between what a person does and the consequences of that act on the theory that the act is at best only symptomatic of real needs. (Burrow, 2005; Feld, 1998).

This argument suggests that the treatment of youths in the juvenile system does not lead to the offender feeling accountable for his/her crimes, therefore, resulting in a lack of liability. This is as opposed to the adult system in which one is held accountable for their crimes and made to pay for them to the maximum extent permissible by the law.

The rising rate of violent juvenile crimes is the primary cause of the greater number of juvenile transfers to criminal courts that have been observed in the previous decades. A report by Yeckel (1997) indicated that between 1989 and 1993, juvenile waivers had increased by 41% as a result of a surge in violent crime and a marked increase in the number of weapons used in crime by juveniles. This clearly pointed out the failure of the juvenile system to perform one of its core functions: deterrence. Arguably the most important role played by the criminal justice system is deterrence. This is because the most desirable function of punishments should be to deter would-be wrongdoers thus leading to a harmonic society. In an ideal environment, punishments should never have to be executed but their mere presence should cause all to abide by the rules and regulations in place therefore peacefully coexist. As such, if the juvenile system is unable to deter would-be offenders, the juvenile offenders should be transferred to the adult court system which issues out lofty punishments that act as a deterrence. Gaines and Miller (2006) contend that it is this deterrence factor in the adult court systems that act as a primary justification for punishments such as the death penalty.

Criminal convictions carry with them a certain stigma as a person is marked as a felon for the rest of their lives. Gaines and Miller (2006) suggest that this “stigmatization” by society is in fact healthy as it also adds to the deterrence factor since people do not want to be viewed as social misfits. The juvenile court system is structured in such a way that these long-term consequences to the offender are not present. Allard and Young (2002) confirm that while adult criminal convictions become a matter of public record, juvenile court convictions are not made available to the public and a juvenile offenders status remains guarded by the system. This is as opposed to an adult conviction which results in some socioeconomic consequences such as the person being compelled to report their conviction on a job application or being barred from particular types of jobs. These consequences greatly diminish the attraction that crime may have for adult offenders. It can be argued that owing to the lack of the same long-term implications to the juveniles, offenders may be less inclined to turn away from their criminal ways since their crimes will have no future bearings on their lives. Juveniles should therefore be waivered to the adult system whereby they will be held more liable for their actions as a result of the long-term consequences that are intrinsic in the adult criminal justice system.

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Juveniles are capable of hideous crimes as was demonstrated in the Kent v. United States case whereby a 16-year-old, Morris A. Kent was charged with breaking into a woman’s apartment, robbing her and raping her (Bakken, 2007). The juvenile court system is evidently not equipped to deal with such kinds of violent crimes as its sentencing does not include life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Bakken (2007) acknowledges that it is cases such as this that make juvenile transfer not only desirable but necessary so as to enable the offender to be tried on criminal charges. The waiving system presents a mode through which these malicious offenders can be kept away from society, therefore, preserving social harmony. Without waivers, crimes such as those committed by Kent would only be punished marginally and the offender would be free to rejoin the society after only a few years of incarceration.

Arguments against Waiving Juveniles to Adult Courts

The rationale behind the establishment of the juvenile system was to protect the interests of the children who were deemed as being less liable than adults since they were morally and emotionally less developed (Rosenheim, 2002). This almost paternal view is the main difference between juvenile courts and criminal courts whereby the juvenile court’s emphasis on the “best interests” of the violators. By indiscriminately waiving juvenile offenders to the adult court system, the criminal justice system will have failed in its initial goal which was to protect the interest of young offenders and hopefully rehabilitate them into useful members of society. However, it can be argued that the juvenile system was established in an era when the capability and emotional intelligence of the youth developed at a fairly slow pace. In the modern era, children are exposed to all kinds of information which results in greater understanding. As such, the laws should be amended to accommodate this new reality.

The primary argument by the proponents of automatic judicial waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction is as a result of the increased juvenile crime and violence. While it is true that juvenile crimes are markedly higher than they were in the previous decades, the same can be said about adult crimes. Allard and Young (2002) assert that there is no evidence that young people have become disproportionately more crime-prone or dangerous at that than the rest of the population. As such, it can be argued that the alleged increase in juvenile crime is simply a function of population growth which is not only natural but to be expected. Allard and Young (2002) go on to demonstrate that the juvenile arrests for serious violent crimes have remained fairly average over the last 30 years.

One of the goals for transferring juvenile offenders to adult criminal courts is to deter them from taking part in criminal activities in the future. A research carried out by Donna Bishop in 1996 to highlight the differences in outcomes of juvenile courts compared to the criminal courts on youths showed that juvenile offenders who were transferred to the adult courts received more severe sentences than their counterparts in the juvenile system. In addition to this, the findings showed that the transferred youth had higher re-arrest rates (54%) compared with 32% for the youths dealt with by the juvenile courts (Bishop, 1996: Rosenheim, 2002). In light of such findings, advocates of the juvenile court systems argue that the taking up of waiving as a means to reduce future crimes is a faulty policy. While the juvenile system may not be flawless, these findings demonstrate that the system has not altogether failed and should therefore be experimented with further.

Discussion

The juvenile system has been undergoing changes since its conception. Initially, the system was informal and as such, most of the rulings were at the discretion of the preceding judge. However, changes have been made through time to take into consideration the realities of society. In the modern era, the frequency with which waivers and certification to criminal courts occur has increased (Gus, 2005). This has mostly been a result of the need to tackle the rise in juvenile crimes. Despite the various arguments forwarded opposing waivers, this means has proven to be an effective means for combating the rising juvenile crime.

The underlying philosophy behind transferring juveniles to the criminal justice system is that more severe punishment even if at the expense of rehabilitation will result in reduced crime rates and therefore increase public safety. However, studies indicate that juvenile offenders in the adult system are more likely to re-offend or commit more serious subsequent offenses than those who remain in the juvenile system (Allard & Young, 2002). This is an argument that opponents of juvenile transfers to adult courts have used over the years. What this argument fails to consider is the large number of juveniles who are deterred from committing crimes as a result of the possibility of stringent measures being taken up against them in the adult system.

Gus (2005) theorizes that the special protections afforded to juveniles and the rehabilitative philosophy is the overriding factor in the juvenile court. For this reason, advocates against waivers point out that the adult criminal court process is adversarial and therefore a hostile environment to the children, this “adversarial” role is important since it reminds the offender of the society’s disdain for crime, therefore, making them more accountable. Increased accountability invariably results in better behavior since the youths are wary that their actions will have consequences.

However, it must be recognized that the public opinion which has been responsible for the toughening of the stance against juvenile offenders is mostly from the influence of media reports and presentations. Merlo and Benekos (2003) caution against developing social policy based on distorted and sensationalized reports by the media. As such, in as much as the application of waivers should be encouraged, care should be taken to not criminalize all juveniles. This is because the core goal of juvenile waivers is not to criminalize individuals but rather to relieve the juvenile system of individuals who cannot be rehabilitated.

Conclusion

This paper set out to argue that juveniles should be waived to adult courts. To underscore this point, the paper has performed a brief overview of the juvenile system in America as well as an in-depth analysis of the arguments forwarded both for and against waivers. From this paper, it has been seen that while proponents of waivers argue that the juvenile court sanctions are not effectively equipped to give punishments that will act as deterrence to the increasingly savvy juvenile offenders, opponents of the same argument that the juvenile waiver will only serve to reduce the chances of rehabilitation of the juvenile offender. However, this paper has clearly demonstrated that juvenile waivers are the only means through with juvenile criminality can be tackled. While there is a real risk that waivers could result in the conversion of juvenile offenders into hardcore criminals, the evidence in this paper suggests that more good than harm can be achieved by waiving juveniles to adult courts.

References

Allard, P. & Young, M. (2002). Prosecuting Juveniles in Adult Court: Perspectives for Policymakers and Practitioners. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice. Web.

Bakken, W. B. (2007). You do the Crime, You do the Time: A Socio-Legal History of the Juvenile Court and Transfer Waivers. Web.

Burrow, J. D. (2005). Punishing Serious Juvenile Offenders: A Case Study of Michigan’s Prosecutorial Waiver Status. Web.

Cole, G. F. & Smith, C. E. (2006). The American System of Criminal Justice. USA: Cengage Learning.

Gaines, L. K. & Miller, R. L. (2006). Criminal Justice in Action. USA: Cengage Learning.

Gus, M. (2005) Juvenile Justice: Process and Systems. USA: Sage.

Merlo, V. A. & Benekos, J. P. (2003). Defining Juvenile Justice in the 21st Century. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Rosenheim, K. M. (2002). A Century of Juvenile Justice. University of Chicago Press.

Sims, B. and Preston, P. (2006). Handbook of Juvenile Justice: Theory and Practice. CRC Press.

Snyder, H. N. (1995). Juvenile Offenders & Victims: A National Report. NY: Diane Publishing

Yeckel, C.J. (1997). Violent Juvenile Offenders: Rethinking Federal Intervention in Juvenile Justice. Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law. Vol. 51: 331.

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