Jurisdictionally and jurisprudentially, decriminalization of status offenders, waiver of serious offenders for adult prosecution, and increased punishment of delinquents, constitutes a criminological triage in the juvenile justice system. Some have argued that this has resulted in discrimination based on race, gender, and socioeconomic class. Discuss the structural components of this triage strategy, and its’ impact on social and legal changes in the juvenile justice system. As the juvenile courts converge procedurally and substantively with the adult criminal courts, does any reason remain to maintain a separate juvenile justice system?
Currently, scholarly communities are presenting studies that appear aimed at undermining the current juvenile justice system. The impact of eliminating the juvenile justice system would be, of course, to pragmatically expunge the distinction between young offenders and adult criminals. Leading the charge for the abolition of the juvenile courts system as we know it in the academic community is University of Minnesota Law professor Barry Feld. From his philosophical perspective, as discussed in Bad Kids, Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court, Feld’s (1999), postulates that [“….the flaw with the criminal justice system lies in the very idea that the juvenile court can successfully combine criminal social control and social welfare in one system” (p. 328). Feld’s centers his complaint upon the contention that “a separate juvenile version of a criminal court cannot succeed or long survive, because it lacks a coherent rationale to distinguish it from the real criminal court” (p. 328). He calls for more determinate sentencing guidelines grounded in accountability and punishment. This paradigm shift Feld calls for is quite distinct from what the Progressives had envisioned. His epistemological premise presents an ethical argument that coincides with sentencing disparities and the irrational nature of the current juvenile justice system, which is inherently, systematically unfair at times, and, therefore, according to Feld, irrational. He is not calling for the reconstruction of the juvenile justice system but its total abolishment. While many of Feld’s observations have scholarly merit, I must, nonetheless, distance myself from his calling for the abolition of the juvenile justice court, as well as those of many of his concurring, eminent colleagues in the criminal justice program. It is my position, that is better to invest money in programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency, than in prison building or the criminal justice system, which has as its components incarceration, incapacitation, release and the adjudication of individuals who are in this system.
Historically, the United States recognizes a distinction between the adult and the child. From its inception, of course, this hasn’t always been the case. In the colonial era there was little distinction between the adult and the child; the only substantive distinction was in the nature of the crime itself. Since the Progressive era, however, when children were viewed for what they are: impressionable, vulnerable and, therefore, malleable people for whom a concept such as rehabilitation could have real, lasting meaning, the distinction between the two has been an integral part of our cultural heritage. Notwithstanding the validity of much of Feld’s argument, a separate juvenile justice system is necessary in order to protect the rights of children. Placement of children guilty of a criminal act or acts with criminal adults denies the essence of the transcending order of society, which is that children are children, and, therefore, people who can be both trained and taught to be, for lack of a better word, upstanding members of a community.
A strong link between crime, race, and poverty, exists within the adult criminal justice system, demonstrated by the recidivism rates of incarcerated adults. In Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas, Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay found that zones closest to the central business district have the highest crime and delinquency and recidivism rates. Incarcerated adults do the crime, do their time, and then return to the urban areas in which they initially broke the law. These same areas or zones are plagued by teenage pregnancy, high high-school dropout rates, mental illness and large amounts of substandard housing, along with the characteristic high concentrations of African American and immigrant populations with poor economic and social status. The authors conclude that the root cause of crime has nothing to do with structural inefficiencies found in the juvenile court system but, rather, the social disorganization that results, almost as a given, from overcrowding and poverty (Voight, 224). In his book entitled, Bad Kids, Feld discusses this, showing the impact of our macro-structural transition from an industrial to an information-based economy on inner cities dwellers such as African Americans (pp. 191-197). His analysis is important, because it reveals the demographic shifts between black and whites, and the shift in policy initiatives that tended to drift away from the cities, and focus more on suburban areas—this is undoubtedly a function of economics, as well; namely, the power of the upper and middle class over the poor (p. 195) This power differential away from urban areas most in need of a kind of social reinforcement has direct relevance to the high rates of ethnic and racial minorities found incarcerated in the criminal justice system. Simply stated, due to residential segregation based on race and income, a poor and/or minority youngster is more likely to have contact with known criminals due to the concentration of persons involved in crime in underclass neighborhoods (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 74). The answer, however, is not the evisceration of the juvenile court system, as if there is no legitimate distinction between a child and an adult, but, rather, legislative initiatives should focus more on investing financially in areas plagued by crime, and not the less cost-effective expansion of the adult criminal justice system.