Academic journal article The Future of Children

Introducing the Issue

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Introducing the Issue

Article excerpt

American juvenile justice policy is in a period of transition. After a decade of declining juvenile crime rates, the moral panic that fueled the "get-tough" reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s--reforms that eroded the boundaries between juvenile and criminal court and exposed juvenile offenders to increasingly harsh punishments--has waned. State legislatures across the country have reconsidered punitive statutes they enacted with enthusiasm not so many years ago. What we may be seeing now is a pendulum that has reached its apex and is slowly beginning to swing back toward more moderate policies, as politicians and the public come to regret the high economic costs and ineffectiveness of the punitive reforms and the harshness of the sanctions.

Several concrete indicators of this shift are noteworthy. First, in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2005 Roper v. Simmons opinion abolishing the juvenile death penalty, several state legislatures have repealed, or are considering repealing, statutes imposing sentences of life without parole on juvenile murderers. (1) Other states have scaled back, often in response to mounting economic costs, automatic transfer laws that send youth to the adult criminal system by statutory exclusion. (2) Many states have increased funding for community-based treatment programs as alternatives to institutional placement. (3) In a few states where youth under eighteen are prosecuted in adult criminal court instead of juvenile court, promising efforts are under way to increase the age to eighteen, as it is in most states. (4) Finally, several states have expanded procedural protection for juveniles in criminal court by enacting statutory provisions authorizing findings of incompetence to stand trial on the basis of developmental immaturity. (5) Although many of the punitive reforms of the 1990s still remain in place, a policy shift appears to have taken place.

Several developments have converged to change the direction of the nation's youth crime policy. Among the most important was the steady decline in juvenile crime beginning in 1994. In the same way that the upward trend in juvenile violence during the 1980s set the stage for the spate of punitive legislation during the 1990s, this downward trend has opened the door to discussions about returning to more moderate policies. Advocates for reform also have been successful in focusing media and political attention on a broad range of emerging social science evidence about adolescent development and juvenile crime. Editorials and op-eds in local and national newspapers have pointed to this evidence in arguing that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults, that juvenile offenders should be given a second chance, that the public supports rehabilitative efforts, and, perhaps most important, that trying juveniles as adults is simply not cost-effective. Evidence of the high economic cost to the government of the wholesale incarceration of juveniles with adults--together with studies finding that adolescents released from adult correctional facilities are more likely to re-offend than those sentenced to juvenile facilities--have influenced the public debate. (6)

Those who applaud the trend toward justice policies that recognize the differences between adolescents and adults may be heartened by these developments, but they should not naively assume that this trend will proceed unabated. Juvenile crime rates, which have risen and fallen cyclically for four decades, will likely rise again, though perhaps not to the extremes of the early 1990s. Indeed, although rates continue to be low, they have crept up recently; in the past year or two, violent crime by juveniles has edged above the 2004 rates, which were the lowest in nearly two decades. (7)

It is too early to tell whether recent reports of an uptick in juvenile crime indicate a reversal of the downward trend that the United States enjoyed for well over a decade, or, instead, a transient fluctuation. …

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