Abolish the Juvenile Court: Youthfulness, Criminal Responsibility, and Sentencing Policy

Article excerpt


Within the past three decades, judicial decisions, legislative amendments, and administrative changes have transformed the juvenile court from a nominally rehabilitative social welfare agency into a scaled-down, second-class criminal court for young people.(1) These reforms have converted the historical ideal of the juvenile court as a social welfare institution into a penal system that provides young offenders with neither therapy nor justice. The substantive and procedural convergence between juvenile and criminal courts eliminates virtually all of the conceptual and operational differences in strategies of criminal social control for youths and adults. No compelling reasons exist to maintain separate from an adult criminal court, a punitive juvenile court whose only remaining distinctions are its persisting procedural deficiencies. Rather, states should abolish juvenile courts' delinquency jurisdiction and, formally recognize youthfulness as a mitigating factor in the sentencing of younger criminal offenders. Such a policy would provide younger offenders with substantive protections comparable to those afforded by juvenile courts, assure greater procedural regularity in the determination of guilt, and avoid the disjunctions in social control caused by maintaining two duplicative and inconsistent criminal justice systems.

My proposal focuses only on the criminal delinquency jurisdiction of juvenile courts because youth crime and violence provide the impetus for most of the current public anxiety and political responses.(2) First, this article will describe briefly the transformation of the juvenile court from a social welfare agency into a deficient criminal court. Second, it will analyze the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions between attempting to combine social welfare and penal social control in the juvenile court. Finally, once a state separates social welfare from criminal social control, no role remains for a separate juvenile court for delinquency matters. Rather, a state could try all offenders in one integrated criminal court, albeit with modifications to respond to the youthfulness of younger defendants. Adolescent developmental psychology, criminal law jurisprudence, and sentencing policy provide rationale to formally recognize youthfulness as a mitigating factor when sentencing younger offenders. Moreover, the uncoupling of social welfare from criminal social control also suggests a social policy agenda more responsive to the needs of youth than the current version of the juvenile court.

In Part II, I briefly analyze the social history of the juvenile court and its subsequent constitutional domestication. I argue that in the three decades since Gault, legal changes have altered juvenile courts' procedures, jurisdiction, and jurisprudence, and increasingly render juvenile courts indistinguishable from criminal courts. The convergence is reflected in the decriminalization of status offenders, the criminalization of serious offenders via waiver to the criminal courts, and the increased punitiveness in sentencing of ordinary delinquents. Despite juvenile courts' increasing and explicit punitiveness, however, they still provide delinquents with fewer and less adequate procedural safeguards than those available to criminal defendants. In Part III, I argue that the juvenile court's deficiencies reflect a fundamental flaw in its conception rather than simply a century-long failure of implementation. The juvenile court attempts to combine social welfare and criminal social control in one institution, but inevitably subordinates the former to the latter because of its inherent penal orientation.

In Part IV, I propose to abolish the juvenile court and to formally recognize youthfulness as a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing, thereby accommodating the lesser culpability of younger offenders. Young offenders differ from adults in their breadth of experience, temporal perspective, willingness to take risks, maturity of judgment, and susceptibility to peer influences. …