Rush to Judgment: Prisoners' Views of Juvenile Justice

By Butler, Frank | Western Criminology Review, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Rush to Judgment: Prisoners' Views of Juvenile Justice

Butler, Frank, Western Criminology Review

Abstract: Using qualitative interviews with adult prisoners who had previously been in some form of placement as juveniles, this study presents the perceptions of juvenile justice and its processes from a population who experienced them first-hand. Common themes about police, court (juvenile and adult), and correctional processes are identified, raising significant ethical issues about the operation of contemporary juvenile justice. Such findings can inform juvenile justice practice.

Keywords: ethics, juvenile court, juvenile justice, qualitative research


To fully appreciate the workings and outcomes of the juvenile justice system, it is valuable to understand the experiences of persons who have been processed through it. Having lived through the "system" first-hand, they are well positioned to comment on its operation. The present study was developed to hear the voices of former juvenile offenders, who have since become adult offenders, for the unique insights they can make to our understanding of how juvenile justice is received. This research focuses on the perceptions of adult male prisoners whom juvenile justice failed to prevent recidivating. Listening to these adult convicts' voices about what it means pragmatically to be processed as "delinquent" yields insights that can help to humanize juvenile justice, both by sensitizing juvenile justice practitioners to the backstage perceptions of delinquents, and by suggesting public policy reforms that might address some of the issues-particularly ethical ones-raised by the prisoners. Listening to their stories helps us to better understand the human condition (Waldram, 2007).


Major ethical issues of social inequity have inhered in juvenile justice in the United States since its inception. Platt's (1977) classic account of the Progressive "child savers," who crafted juvenile courts, details the class-based politics that led genteel reformers to couch intrusive control mechanisms for the financially poor as benign ministrations that would rescue them from evil and corruption. Rothman (2002) describes the conflict between moral conscience and bureaucratic convenience that ensnared the burgeoning juvenile system, with the latter ultimately triumphing.

Idealism continued to collide with reality during the first century of a formal juvenile justice "system." The grand rehabilitative rhetoric which draped its beginnings in the first half of the 20th century became increasingly tattered as socio-political forces in the latter half of the century reconstructed deviant youth as primarily depraved (Feld 1999). A focus on the behavioral malleability of wayward adolescents dimmed as dazzling visions of hardened proto-criminals, who threatened social stability, became politically ascendant.

In the mid-to-late 20th century, juvenile justice was increasingly politicized, resulting in what Feld (2003) describes as an "inversion" of juvenile jurisprudence and sentencing policy. Judicial discretion was supplanted by politically charged legislative and executive power, as goals like public safety and criminal punishment were substituted for more benign concepts like a youth's "amenability to treatment" and her "best interests." A spurious wave of juvenile violent crime in the late 1980s and 1990s, sensationalized by the mass media (Ruddell and Decker 2005), discredited the juvenile court and enabled the transfer of adolescents from juvenile adjudication to adult criminal processing and punishment (Beckett and Sasson 2004). The shift of power was from ostensibly impartial juvenile court judges to the politicized public prosecutor, whose discretion in both juvenile and adult cases is vast and primarily unregulated (Davis 2007). That transfer of power has been described as ripe with "injustice and irrationality" from a public policy standpoint (Bishop 2004).

More recently there appears to be some "softening" in juvenile justice. …

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