At this point in the evolution of the justice system, the treatment of adolescent offenders appears to be a serious challenge to the American courts. The fact that the system has failed to stem a rise in juvenile delinquency is a serious message to courts. At this point, many young offenders are tried in special juvenile courts that aim at correctional stance and target a specific population group. There is also an increasing trend to move the cases of juvenile offenders to adult criminal courts, especially those that involve serious crimes.
This paper will consider whether it is worthwhile to address juvenile crime in this drastic way or whether it is advisable to retain special proceedings in juvenile courts for this type of offenders. On the contrary, it seems reasonable to maintain a separate system of juvenile courts and a special procedure for trying adolescents. Negative Impact on Minor Offenders In considering the issue of proper punishment and treatment for young offenders, it is vital to consider the consequences for their subsequent lives and behaviors.
Prosecutors and court officials have to ask themselves what the ultimate goal of the court proceedings is: to punish the criminal (retributive justice), to restore the damage to the victim (restorative justice), or prevent further crimes (utilitarian perspective). The latter goal will almost inevitably involve a degree of measures that are offender-focused rather than offense-focused (Steinberg, 2000, p. 8). Under an offender-focused perspective, it is necessary to concentrate on criminal justice in terms of its effectiveness in crime prevention and impact on recidivism.
In this respect, the currently fashionable practice of transferring crimes committed by juveniles to adult courts has proved to have negative effects on recidivism. Bishop et al (1996) indicate that as a transfer of juvenile cases to criminal courts raised the probability of recidivism. Investigating the recidivism of youth whose cases were considered by Florida’s adult courts in 1987, the authors arrived at the conclusion that the transferred offenders sooner committed repeat crimes than those whose cases have not been transferred.
The transfer also impacted the seriousness of the new crime committed. Thus, the ones whose cases went to the criminal court were more likely to commit felony. This study, consequently, dispels that myth that transfer of juvenile cases to adult courts can prevent them from repeat offenses. Fagan (1995) arrives at the same conclusion: combined treatment of adolescents and adults within the same court system does not deter crime; in contrast, it produces negative results as it increases the likelihood of repeat offense by adolescents.
While many expect that youths tried in the criminal system will be de-motivated from committing repeat crimes, reality tells a different story. Recidivism rates remain high among adolescents, and punishment is not more effective in terms of deterrence. Thus, the results of investigating 15- and 16-year-old adolescents charged with robbery and burglary tried for burglary in New Jersey and New York State courts in criminal and juvenile courts demonstrate that recidivism rates were in fact higher among those whose cases went to the criminal courts.
These teenagers were more likely to undergo a repeat arrest, to go to prison again, or to commit a new crime. While trials in different types of courts nevertheless produced similar results in terms of sentence terms, the recidivism impact was in fact smaller in criminal courts. This once again refutes the hypothesis that juvenile courts are doing a poor job of prevention, and criminal courts can be more suited to the job. The reality demonstrates that those whose cases go to criminal courts are not deterred from subsequent crimes.
In fact, their transfer to adult courts seems to instigate them to commit further crimes. This is evidenced by higher recidivism rates despite comparable sentences. Focusing on the Offender Reviewing the conclusion of the past chapter, it makes sense to ask why the criminal court system fails to restore justice and prevent further offenses. The answer can be: because it fails to target the specific needs of juvenile offenders in its proceedings.
Suited to the needs of adults, the adult court system does not address the needs of an adolescent who, for instance, committed the first crime out of complicity with friends or other similar reasons. Instead, “According to Alfred Regnery, one of the leading advocates of such get-tough policies, juvenile offenders should be treated as "criminals who happen to be young, not children who happen to be criminal” (Dodge, 2000, p. 51). A personalized approach to the needs of children with a criminal background is more likely to evolve within the walls of specialized juvenile courts rather than adult ones.
This move signifies “a fundamental inversion in juvenile court jurisprudence from treatment to punishment, from rehabilitation to retribution, from immature child to responsible criminal” (Dodge, 2000, p. 51). However, professionals who work with these children know that they are far removed from mature criminals who are tried in adult courts. Their exposure to the criminal world can be limited; their understanding of the motives of crime and specificities of punishment is scarce; and moreover, their understanding of their own selves is limited. This makes them prone to external influences.
It is very likely that those who arrive at a criminal court will be impressed with being treated as adult, “fully-fledged” offenders, an image that will forever force them to place a label on themselves, shutting out other opportunities. Stigmatization that can occur in such proceedings and changes in self-evaluation can impact the further destiny of an individual. An effective court system for juvenile offenders, in the opinion of professionals, has to include a strong rehabilitative component, accounting for the development of adaptive skills in youth.
This is not altogether impossible, but extremely difficult within the adult system since it is necessary to account for the specificities of younger offenders in such interventions. Geraghty (1997), a lawyer with some 28 years of experience in juvenile courts, notes that “in a unified system, there would be no hope that a sophisticated children's court, with judges, defenders, and prosecutors who specialize in the adjudication and disposition of offenses committed by children, would develop”.
A separate system targeted at children inevitably includes lobbyists who push for improved court proceedings, better standards, increased resources for social service, and better probation. Courts become a focus for cooperation between representatives of social services and those employed in the criminal court system. This is possible only within the context of juvenile courts existing as a separate system.