Term Paper: Reforming the Juvenile Justice System

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[. . .] To ask juvenile defendants to exhibit abilities that are not usually found in adult defendant is inconsistent.

Current research suggests that age should not be considered the determinative factor in determining whether juveniles understand their rights or trial process, but factors such as intelligence test scores, problematic educational histories, learning disabilities, and mental disorders (Shepherd and Zaremba 1995). Age alone is a poor indicator of whether juveniles possess adult level understanding of legal rights and trial process. Recent developmental psychology research has also suggested that, on average, juveniles should be about as capable as adults of providing accurate information (e.g., to their attorneys) and understand the trial process based on their experience. Since 1992 all but 10 of the states have greatly liberalized the ability of the state to try juveniles as adults, a number of them at earlier ages than previously (Torbet 1996).

Punishing Juveniles as Adults

In a study conducted in Michigan, over two-thirds of respondents wanted juveniles charged with serious crimes such as selling a large amount of drugs and violent crime to tried and punished as adults, but did not juveniles mixed in with the adult population (Schwartz 1992). In a Virginia student, over three-quarters of respondents wanted juveniles to be treated as adults for serious crimes, but opposed mixing juveniles and adults awaiting trial (Virginia Commission on Youth, 1996). The consensus appears to be that juveniles tried as adults should receive the same due process and punishment for serious offences, but should be segregated in juvenile facilities until they reach the age of 18 -- really an acknowledgement of the difficult life faced in adult facilities, rather than a differentiation in culpability.

In states such as New Mexico and Massachusetts, juvenile court judges have the authority to ensure that after juveniles have served sentences until the age of 18 can have their sentences extended into their adult years. Thus, if a juvenile defendant is convicted and sentenced to serve a life sentence, there are provisions in the system that ensures a transition from juvenile to adult correction facilities. I would contend that such powers need to be extended to all jurisdictions in order to help provide accountability and fairness in the sentencing process.

IV. Concluding Remarks

In many states, younger juveniles who are sentenced for serious crimes will in all likelihood be out of prison before they turn 18. Even for violent crimes, such as murder, in states such as Arkansas, juveniles under the age of 14 many not be tried as adults and the maximum sentence they can receive will go no longer than their twenty-first birthday. There is something fundamentally unjust about a system of justice that would allow a juvenile who committed a horrific murder to be allowed to go free, simply because he turned 21. In the case of serious criminal offences, the juvenile justice system must give way to the adult justice system.

The criminal justice systems response to an increase in juvenile crime has been to reform the system to meet the seriousness of the offences being committed. While the public and judicial systems have indeed recognized that the punitive juvenile justice reform was greatly needed, we need to ensure that serious criminal offenders are made to be held accountable for their actions. Recent legislative activity in this area and arguments for treating serious juvenile offenders as adults, predicated on the importance of public safety, fairness, and maintaining the integrity of the justice system, provide the best reasons to ensure the values of justice and accountability are upheld in our courts.


Richard Bonnie, "The Competence of Criminal Defendants: A Theoretical Reformulation," Behavior, Science, & Law 291(10), 1992.

Charlotte Faltermayer, "What Is Justice For A Sixth-Grade Killer?" Time Magazine 151(13): April 6, 1998

Thomas Grisso, "Society's Retributive Response to Juvenile Violence: A Developmental Perspective," Law & Human Behavior 229 (20), 1996.

Thomas Grisso, "The Competence of Adolescents as Trial Defendants, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law," (forthcoming)

Koch Crime Institute, Innovative Practices in the Criminal Juvenile Justice Systems Report: Sentencing, Corrections, Diversion (Topeka, Kansas: 1998)

National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Department of Justice, U.S. Government; http://virlib.ncjrs.org/Statistics.asp; http://virlib.ncjrs.org/JuvenileJustice.asp [accessed June 23, 2002]

Ira Schwartz, "Juvenile Crime-Fighting Policies: What the Public Really Wants," in Ira M. Schwartz (ed.), Juvenile Justice and Public Policy: Toward a National Agenda (New York: Lexington Books, 1992)

Robert E. Shepherd and Barbara A. Zaremba, "When a Disabled Juvenile Confesses to a Crime: Should it be Admissible?" Criminal Justice 31(9), 1995.

Howard Snyder and Barbara Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report (Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999);


Patricia Torbet, Richard Gable, Hunter Hurst IV, Imogene Montgomery, Linda Szymanski, and Douglas Thomas, "State Responses to Serious and Violent Juvenile Crime," (Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996); www.ncjrs.org/txtfiles/statresp.txt

Virginia Commission on Youth, "Report of the Virginia Commission on Youth on the Study of Juvenile Justice System Reform," House Document No. 37 (1996)

Cases Cited

Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402 [1960]

Godinez. v. Moran, 113… [END OF PREVIEW]

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