State Responses to Serious and Violent Juvenile Crimes

Article excerpt

Prompted by public concern over the increased incidence of violent juvenile crime, state legislators nationwide have responded with new and far-reaching proposals to alter the authority and practice of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. From 1992 until the end of 1995, 47 states plus the District of Columbia made substantial changes to their laws targeting juveniles who commit violent or serious crimes. This magnitude of change is extremely rare, and has led to a system of justice for juvenile offenders that appears quite different from the system of a few years ago.


Themes                               Trends

Jurisdictional authority        More serious and violent juvenile
                                offenders are being removed from
                                the juvenile justice system in
                                favor of criminal court

Judicial disposition/           More state legislatures are
sentencing authority            experimenting with new
                                disposition/sentencing options.

Correctional programming        Correctional administrators are
                                under pressure to develop programs
                                as a result of new transfer and
                                sentencing laws.

Confidentiality of juvenile     Traditional confidentiality
court records and proceedings   provisions are being revised in
                                favor of more open proceedings and

Victims of juvenile crime       Victims of juvenile crime are
                                being included as "active
                                participants" in the juvenile
                                justice process.

Findings based on research conducted by the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) and funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicate that many state juvenile justice systems have shifted their emphasis to holding juveniles accountable for the seriousness of their offenses. While some states appear to have incorporated this position into a reasoned approach that includes protecting the community and enhancing the offender's ability to function as a law-abiding, contributing member of society, many others have focused solely on the punishment of offenders. In most cases, states are incarcerating more juvenile offenders for longer periods and redefining more of them as adults.

The NCJJ report, titled State Responses to Serious and Violent Juvenile Crime, is the first comprehensive analysis of the breadth of change sweeping the nation. Five common themes emerged from the analysis of legislation and responses to a survey of juvenile justice practitioners in every state and the District of Columbia. The themes included: jurisdictional authority, sentencing, correctional programming, confidentiality of records and hearings, and victim involvement. Figure 1 identifies these themes, as well as the general direction of the changes adopted by states in response to escalating crime by juveniles.

These trends represent both a reaction to the increasingly serious nature of juvenile crime and a fundamental shift in juvenile justice philosophy. Traditional notions of individualized dispositions based on the best interests of the juvenile are being diminished by interests in punishing criminal behavior. Inherent in many of the changes is the belief that violent juvenile offenders must be held more accountable for their actions. Accountability is, in many instances, defined as punishment, or a period of incarceration when less attention is paid to the activities to be accomplished during incarceration. Toward this end, dispositions are to be offense-based rather than offender-based, with the goal of punishment instead of rehabilitation. …