There has been an ebb and flow to trends in treating juvenile offenders over the years. At times, there has been more of a focus on rehabilitating them than criminalizing them. Your question refers to an increase in criminalizing their behavior by sending them to prison instead of attempting to rehabilitate them.
First, define a juvenile offender as someone under the age of 18 (16 for some crimes in some states).
To refute the recent expansion of secure institutional setting for juvenile offenders, the main points are that it does more harm than good to send juveniles to jail for their offenses. The objective is to prevent the person from committing crimes, not just to punish the child for the crime committed. In the case of even violent crimes, taking the child out of society means removing positive influences.
According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research “incarceration during adolescence may interrupt human and social capital accumulation at a critical moment, leading to reduced future wages and further criminal activity” (2010). In fact, the child is less likely to finish high school, have connection with the family unit, and be a contributing member of society. The child is not a member of society at all. The child is not in society. A clear message has been sent, at an impressionable age, that society “does not want you.” Send juveniles to jail, the study shows, and they are more likely to end up there are again as adults.
To defend the recent expansion of secure institutional setting for juvenile offenders, the main points are that it does more good than harm to send juveniles to jail for their offenses. The idea here is that jail is a deterrent. Kids are less likely to commit crimes because they won’t want to go to jail, or will not want to go back. Also, that jail will keep them on the straight and narrow. Critics may argue with the study above that the family is a bad influence or the kids would not have been in jail anyway. Also, kids do not sit in their prison cells all day. While they are in juvenile detention, they are attending school. The detention center ensures that they will at least get some education and may even learn a trade that they might find useful when they get out. As for recidivism (the idea that they might go back in as adults), once the child is released from prison, he will return to the bad environment he came from, and return to the habits that got him into prison in the first place.
In many ways, we have a chicken or the egg argument here. Does the juvenile detention cause the problems juvenile offenders who have served time have later in life, such as not finishing school and increased recidivism rates, or is it the environment, personality traits, or behavior that landed them in juvenile detention in the first place that cause the problems later in life? Juvenile detention gives young offenders a deterrent for their behavior and an opportunity for an education, but it does not change the situation they came from.
On the other hand, what kind of society are we where we throw away our children? Do we solve our problems by just hiding them? Babies killing babies, so we lock them up? When are we going to realize that the problem is not the children themselves, but the society that has created this situation? It is time to face the facts that poverty, racism, unemployment, and a detached society have created this situation, and we are going to have to do a better job of solving it. There are alternatives to prison and turning our backs. We need to find ways to help these kids, such as outreach, mentoring, community groups, and improving education. The problem will not go away.