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  • Erin Haney

Juveniles in the Justice System: Rehabilitation and Reform

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Before coming to law school, I volunteered in the Public Defender’s Office in Ohio and specifically worked in the juvenile justice department. These experiences lead me to question the juvenile justice system: what that looks like and how are things being changed?

So, what is the process a juvenile goes through when he or she commits a crime, and how is that process different from what happens when an adult commits a crime? According to the Juvenile Law Center, over a hundred years ago, the juvenile justice system was quite informal. The process consisted of a juvenile merely coming before a judge and having a conversation, rather than the focus being on the offense itself. The juvenile courts back then had a probation system and used a separate system to provide minors with supervision. In this system, a guardian of sorts monitored the juvenile and provided guidance and education. In re Gault, the Supreme Court held that youth in the juvenile system have many of the same rights guaranteed to adults, including the right to an attorney and the right to confront an accuser. This was the beginning of an institutionalized juvenile justice system, which has led to the problems and issues in the juvenile justice system today.

​The problem with an institutionalized system begins with the record that many juveniles carry with them into adulthood. Although juvenile hearings are different than adult hearings in that they are not public or made public record, the records are not automatically sealed or expunged and therefore many juveniles still carry their records into adulthood. This can affect their future careers or educational opportunities, and even their likelihood of returning to the corrections system. Having a juvenile record can affect a juvenile’s ability to get federal funding for a college education, and in turn that affects a young person’s ability to get a job. Additionally, there are problems with mistreatment and abuse in the institutionalized system. Instead of taking a rehabilitative approach, wherein a guardian or adult can help get a juvenile back on track, an institutionalized system sometimes perpetuates the abuse and lack of individualized attention that put the juvenile at risk in the first place.

Rehabilitation still remains the main goal of the juvenile justice system. Juveniles are treated differently because they are seen differently in the eyes of the law—they’re more likely to be successful in rehabilitation and they’re seen as more innocent than an adult offender. Kurt Kumli, an attorney who’s been working exclusively in juvenile courts for the past six years, suggests there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to rehabilitation. Just as children are different—whether it’s personality, culture, or learning style—the approach to their rehabilitation should be different. According to Kumli, many times you have to try all different methods and see which one seems to work with a particular juvenile.

In addition to rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates is an obvious concern for those working to reform the juvenile justice system. Kumli surmises that the earlier you’re able to reach a kid, the better their chances of not re-offending will be. Meaning, the longer a kid is in the system, the more difficult rehabilitation becomes. Kumli seems to think that being able to reach a juvenile offender’s parents could also be key to rehabilitation. If you can change the environment that, especially young, juveniles live in, their chances of rehabilitation are greater. Kumli’s observations seem to correlate with research from Social Work Research, which suggest that in-home probation is associated with a lower risk of recidivism for first-time violent juvenile offenders. Another way to reduce recidivism is to reach a child as early as possible once they’re in the system because the longer they’re in the system, the more difficult rehabilitation becomes.

Judge Nancy Hoffman, who served on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County where she handled many juvenile cases, also has ideas about what could be done differently regarding rehabilitation. She too seems to think that involving the parents or guardians somehow in the process of rehabilitation or correcting behavior is imperative. She suggests that with the help of a caring social worker, hopefully changes can be made or at the very least an investigation into the juvenile’s home life can be conducted in order to determine what is causing the errant behavior. Although impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs, many detailed research studies suggest a link between poor parental monitoring and juvenile incarceration rates. Studies suggest that parent training programs or programs that involve a guardian could be essential to long-term intervention and rehabilitation.

Perhaps due in part to research by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network, the courts have started to view juvenile justice through a developmental perspective. However, many improvements are still needed. According to various reports and articles, and one Open Society Foundations article in particular, Missouri seems to be leading the way in juvenile justice system reform. Rather than large, prison-like institutions to handle juveniles, Missouri officials are using smaller, less institutional facilities where the staffs are trained to interact in a positive fashion. In these institutions, the staff try to connect with kids on a personal level rather than just “show them who’s boss.”

Some people believe, as do I, that the only way to truly reform institutionalized juvenile prison is to get rid of it completely. As demonstrated above, an institutionalized system introduces many disturbing problems, and seems to help very little, other than momentarily taking a delinquent member of society off the streets. American society seems to have adhered to the philosophy that the only way to deal with errant members of society is to lock them up. The adult prison systems are deplorable, but the mistreatment and abuse in a juvenile prison system seems especially heinous. What about rehabilitation; is it completely disregarded because it’s too much of a hassle? The thought of locking someone up with the hopes that they’ll magically self-correct seems crazy, but that’s what our society essentially expects. This mentality is distressing for all those who are locked up, but it’s especially disturbing when it comes to our young people who have a greater propensity to become rehabilitated. As demonstrated above, an institutionalized juvenile system doesn’t seem to help reform troubled youth; rather, it seems to be perpetuating issues that got juveniles in trouble in the first place.

Clearly, a civilized society requires methods of dealing with errant members. There has to be a system of right and wrong, and in turn a system for dealing with those who break laws. We can’t just turn our heads and let criminal behavior go ignored. But is institutionalized juvenile justice really the answer? Because it doesn’t seem to be dealing effectively with delinquent juveniles.

It seems common sense: a juvenile who is mistreated and has no parental guidance and positive mentoring is more likely to become delinquent. However, that common sense approach—mentoring and guiding, rather than punishing and abusing—doesn’t seem to be implemented in the way our juvenile justice system is operating today. Research suggests that true rehabilitation starts in the home, or with some positive adult role model to help nurture and guide—not mistreat, confine, or abuse—a delinquent juvenile. Overall, studies point to parental guidance and positive role models as having a much more positive effect in intervening in a troubled youth’s life. Yet, our institutionalized system continues to mistreat and perpetuate problems rather than help mentor and guide troubled youth. The juvenile justice system has even gone so far as to try juveniles as adults, in hopes that the harsher sentences will deter further juvenile criminal behavior. Yet, studies show that trying juveniles as adults has not decreased juvenile crime rates; it simply makes it even more difficult to rehabilitate and get the child back on a constructive path. On a positive note, juvenile incarceration has dropped 40 percent over the last decade. However, there is still much room for improvement since our juvenile incarceration rate still surpasses that of any other nation.


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