What is juvenile delinquency, and how does it develop?

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The term juvenile delinquency refers to criminal actions committed by individuals who are not yet considered to be adults. However, the juvenile justice system deals with three types of young people: juvenile criminal offenders, status offenders, and children in need of services.
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The first juvenile court was founded in Cook County, Chicago, in 1899. Before that time, children over the age of seven were treated as adults in criminal court. They were tried as adults, sentenced as adults, and served their time in adult facilities. The juvenile court sought to act in the best interest of the child and had the goal of keeping children out of the adult criminal justice system. Early reformers saw the adult criminal system as being harmful to young people and actually being responsible for turning youthful offenders into hardened criminals. These reformers felt that juveniles, because of their age, could be rehabilitated and become contributing citizens.

The juvenile court systems that were established in jurisdictions throughout the United States were very different from the criminal courts that tried adult cases. Unlike criminal courts, juvenile courts do not have the burden of establishing proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The lesser standard of preponderance of evidence is used. Juvenile courts are not open to the public for inspection. This shields the juveniles from the detrimental effects of being known as an offender. The juvenile court process is not meant to be an adversarial process but, much like therapeutic jurisprudence in the adult system, is meant to work toward the outcome that is in the best interest of the juvenile. Historically, the judge has acted more as a parent toward the wayward juvenile than as a judge handing out sentences.

Initially, the granting of even limited constitutional rights was seen as anathema to the juvenile system. However, while juvenile court judges were supposed to look out for the best interests of the juveniles who came into their courtrooms, this was not always what transpired. There were serious problems with the protection and care that juvenile courts gave. Juveniles were often punished more harshly than adults would be for similar actions. Many young people were given punishments based more on their ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status than on the offense that had been committed. By the 1960s, it was clear to many that the juvenile system did not look after the interests of all juveniles equally and the Supreme Court, through a series of landmark decisions, extended some (although not all) due process rights to juveniles.

Types of Juveniles in the System

The juvenile court system handles three types of juveniles: juvenile criminal offenders, status offenders, and children in need of services. Juvenile criminal offenders are juveniles who have committed actions that would be criminal even for an adult, such as theft, robbery, rape, or murder. In some cases, juvenile cases may be waived, or transferred, to adult court. There are four ways this can occur: judicial waiver (the judge has the power to waive the juvenile to adult court), statutory exclusion (certain offenses are automatically waived to adult court), direct file (prosecutor may request that the case be waived to adult court), and demand waiver (the juvenile’s attorney may request that the case be waived to adult court). The demand waiver is most often done so that the juvenile has access to all constitutional protections afforded to adults. About half of the states place the lower age limit for transfer to adult court at fourteen or fifteen years of age. A significant portion of the remaining states have no lower age limit for transfer to adult court, and children as young as ten and eleven have been tried as adults. However, there are problems with transferring juveniles to adult court. Juveniles who are transferred to adult court have higher rates of recidivism than those who remain in the juvenile court. Juveniles who are sent to adult correctional institutions are more likely to be victimized while incarcerated. Once a juvenile is in the adult system, rehabilitation is far less likely.

Status offenders have engaged in behavior that is not allowed because of their age, such as skipping school or running away—actions that would not be illegal for an adult. It is important for the system to deal with status offenders in a different manner than juvenile criminal offenders. If possible, formal processing of these juveniles and contact with juvenile criminal offenders should be avoided.

Children in need of services (also referred to as children in need of supervision and children in need of protection) are not delinquent but rather have been victims of neglect or abuse and come into the system to be protected. Abuse can take a variety of forms, from sexual to physical to emotional. The majority of all cases of child abuse consist of instances of neglect. Neglect can take many forms, including failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, education, or medical needs.

Treating Juvenile Offenders

The earlier intervention can begin with a juvenile, the better. Too often, juveniles are not referred for treatment until they have committed several serious offenses; by then rehabilitation is a much more difficult task. The best approach focuses on prevention at one of three stages: before any sort of negative behavior, after some minor negative behavior has occurred but before serious delinquent behavior, and after serious delinquent behavior has begun.

Programs may be geared toward youths in general and may focus on building strengths and resiliency. These aim at helping youths to be the best they can be and to never engage in delinquent behavior. Resiliency research looks at ways to make delinquency less likely by helping young people to focus on their strengths rather than their deficits. Programs can help young people develop skills in academics, sports, and the arts.

Prevention programs may focus on young people who have committed less serious offenses, often status offenses—skipping school or running away. The goal is to prevent any more serious delinquent behavior from occurring. Research has shown that the single most predictive factor in later delinquency is school failure. Interventions designed to help young people succeed in school, reduce truancy, and remain in school can be highly successful. Juveniles who run away, especially female juveniles, often do so to avoid abuse within the home. Programs should address these girls’ unique needs and not necessarily return them to the abusive environment from which they came or criminalize their behavior.

Prevention programs can address the needs of the juvenile offender who has already engaged in serious delinquent behavior. These programs must be comprehensive and consistent, providing counseling, sanctions and supervision. Because of their age and the importance of the family unit to the lives of juveniles, the family should be actively involved in interventions.

Juvenile justice agencies and practitioners have moved toward a model of balanced and restorative justice. This model balances the rehabilitation of the offender with concern for the safety and well-being of the victim and the community. Balanced and restorative justice sees crime as a break in the relationship that society has with the offender. The goal of the balanced and restorative justice approach is to rehabilitate and reintegrate the offender into the community. Offenders must take responsibility for their actions and repair the harm caused by their crime.

Myths of Juvenile Delinquency

Not only the general public but also many criminal justice students believe that juvenile crime rates are rising and spiraling out of control. In fact, there was a steady increase in juvenile crimes until the mid-1990s, at which time the rates began to fall. According to statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, from 1996, when it peaked, to 2011, the juvenile arrest rate declined 48 percent.

While juvenile crime rates were rising in the early 1990s, many people feared that younger and younger juveniles were committing more and more violent and serious crimes. However, even as juvenile crime rates were on the rise, most juvenile offenses were property crimes and not violent offenses. One outcome of this myth was that it became more common to waive juveniles to adult court.

A common misconception is that waiver to adult court is used to process only the most serious and violent juvenile offenders. Statistically, however, more than half of juvenile offenders who are subject to waiver have committed property crimes and not violent offenses. Far from serving as a deterrent to these or other juveniles, being sent to an adult facility increases the likelihood of recidivism.


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