The Juvenile Justice Dilemma

By Olsson, Kurt S. | Corrections Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

The Juvenile Justice Dilemma


Olsson, Kurt S., Corrections Today


To many Americans today, the country is a hostage -- but not, as one might first expect, to terrorists overseas. Instead, we live in terror of our own children. The murder reports we read in the paper or see on television are particularly horrifying: In San Antonio, Texas, Victoria Dalton, 13, is convicted of smothering two small children left in her care. Fifteen hundred miles away, in Portland, Ore., Brandon Roses, 10, is found guilty of murdering his 5-year-old sister because he claimed she was annoying him.

These are not isolated events. According to a Department of Justice report released in November, 23 percent of those arrested for weapons offenses in 1993 were under age 18. In the same report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that in 1993 one in 100 18-year-olds was arrested for weapons offenses, a rate three times higher than for males 25 to 29 and five times higher than for males 30 to 34. A week later, the FBI released a report indicating that arrests for youths under 18 increased 7 percent in 1994.

In light of these disturbing statistics, it may not be surprising that the general public is starting to believe its children are getting meaner. More violent. The media, politicians and public want something done. They realize that if the situation looks bleak now, it could deteriorate even more in the future. The U.S. Census projects that the juvenile population, reported to be 27.1 million in 1990, will rise to 33.8 million in 2010.

At the heart of the controversy: the juvenile justice system. Begun in 1899, when the first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Ill., some would claim the juvenile justice system is showing its age. For the past system years, the system has come under attack by state legislatures, the media and national policymakers. They believe the juvenile justice system is failing. Their solution to the juvenile crime problem -- to get tougher. According to a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, 60 percent of Americans believe that a teenager convicted of murder should get the death penalty.

In response to this "get tough" mood, more states are passing legislation to try youths as adults for more types of crime at younger ages. This stance is "trickling up" as well. In September, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) introduced a bill, S1245, that would amend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 to prosecute and punish hardcore juvenile offenders ages 14 to 17 who commit murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, rape and serious drug offenses.

Houses of Refuge

Trying youths as adults and imprisoning them with adults is nothing new. "Until the nineteenth century juveniles were confined together with adult offenders in prisons," writes Jay S. Albanese in Dealing with Delinquency: The Future of Juvenile Justice. "The horrible conditions of these prisons led to the development of houses of refuge and reform schools specifically for juveniles, culminating in the invention of the juvenile court in 1899 and a separate juvenile justice system."

From its humble origins in Cook County at the turn of the century, the juvenile justice movement quickly gained momentum. By 1917, all but three states had passed juvenile court legislation. Twenty-eight years later, every state in the country had juvenile courts. From the turn of this century to the 1970s, the emphasis in dealing with juvenile offenders moved from a philosophy of punishment and imprisonment to one of rehabilitation and reintegration -- a change symbolized by the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which sought to encourage the development of community-based alternatives to juvenile detention. But shortly after the act passed, the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction, with the focus returning to the offense rather than the individual offender.

At roughly the same time as this philosophical shift, juvenile crime rates began to skyrocket. …

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