The Four Major Shifts in Federal Juvenile Policy

the Four Major Shifts in Federal Juvenile Policy

Case Management – CJ445-01

Adolescents throughout history have been characterized by their immature, irresponsible, impulsive, reckless, and inconsiderate behaviors. It is no secret that they are unreliable, forgetful, messy, unorganized, and do not think before they act. Is there a scientific explanation for these behaviors or are they just menaces to society until they reach adulthood? Neuroscientists and Developmental Scientists have been making increasingly compelling arguments for a scientific explanation of juvenile crime since the 1960s which have revolutionized the juvenile justice system and offender sentencing. Since its founding in 1899, the Juvenile Justice system and Federal Juvenile policy have undergone four major shifts because the Supreme Court have chosen to become more receptive to science and the dedicated research of scientists.

The year 1899 was monumental for our nation’s history. Not only was the nation in the midst of the Progressive Era, but for the first time ever, social reformers were demanding that juveniles and juvenile offenders be treated differently than adults and adult offenders. Through the tireless efforts of the American Social Worker Jane Addams and several of her peers, the Juvenile Justice system was officially established. For the first time ever, school attendance became mandatory, child labor laws were enforced, and government agencies began to take notice of the country’s youth that became involved in crime because they had suffered abuse and neglect by their parents. During this period of history (which lasted well into the 1960s,) the Rehabilitative Model, which emphasizes rehabilitating young offenders and not punishing them for their crimes, became the foundation of the juvenile court and shaped its operation. Criminal responsibility had no place in the jurisprudence of juvenile justice. (, 2013)

The late 1960’s and 1970’s were a transitioning period for juvenile courts because the federal government felt that they were so consumed by codling America’s children that they were failing to properly rehabilitate offenders. Juvenile offenders were denied the right to counsel, minimal evidence was necessary to convict them of a crime, and many adjudicated delinquent youths were sentenced to serving time in prisonlike facilities where they received little to no treatment. This made recidivism soar through the roof as older juveniles began to become adults during this era. The ruling by the US Supreme Court during the 1967 In re Gault was a landmark decision; directly because of this case, procedural due process was introduced into juvenile delinquency proceedings, courts, and legislatures. Lawmakers in this period recognized that in order for a justice system to serve justice, it must do more to adhere to the principles of justice and hold young people accountable for their actions. The justice system should remain fair, protect youth, and promote their welfare, but must also punish them so they do not continue to offend.

“Get tough on crime” was the motto for the Juvenile Justice system during the 1980s and 1990s. The government’s efforts to punish punitively and harshly as deterrent measures were a colossal failure and the country experienced a dramatic increase in violent juvenile crime, especially homicide during the late 1980s. The concerned citizens of this country viewed juvenile courts with contempt because they were perceived as “lenient” and “soft”, so they demanded legislative reform. Young Americans were viewed as “super-predators who posed a grave threat to society.” (, 2013) During this era, the federal government focused its resources on protecting the public, regaining control over the community, and equipping offenders with the skillsets they need in order to function as a law-abiding, contributing member of society. (McFall-Torbet, 2000)

During the mid-1990s, the federal government was reminded of the original intent of the Juvenile Justice system – to provide a separate justice system in which juvenile offenders would be fairly punished, protected, and treated differently than adult criminals. A large component of the government protecting a child is assessing their needs and finding treatment options for them wherever appropriate. The government began to adjust their methods of punishment from all offenders being sentenced to incarceration in a detention center to the community-based programs that they had been experimenting with when they began to see an impact on the rate of recidivism in juvenile offenders. These programs were so beneficial that they made the rate of juvenile crime dramatically decline. By 2004, the rate of crimes committed by juvenile offenders was the lowest that it had been in over two decades. By 2005, the federal government was taking psychosocial and biological/developmental factors such as race, age, social class, and gender began to be taken into consideration more than ever. (Gottesman & Schwarz, 2011)

When policymakers (especially US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in the landmark case of Roper vs. Simmons in 2005) finally realized that juvenile offenders lack the self-regulating capabilities required to understand their thoughts, accept responsibility, process their emotions, thoughtfully consider and control their actions, and manage their time/resources to meet a goal, it significantly shifted their beliefs on culpability. How can someone who is biologically incapable of controlling their impulses, lacks critical logic and reasoning skills, and has intense mood swings due to their rapidly-fluctuating hormones reasonably be expected to have good judgment? Furthermore, how can someone who does not even have a fully-formed brain have the capacity to fully understand criminal behavior during their adolescence? There are exceptions (mentally ill children, developmentally handicapped children, and children who are being influenced by an adult or outside influence,) but most children are fundamentally good by nature. Developmental Science has been revolutionizing the Juvenile Justice system during the 2000s because inmates in our prisons who committed crimes as adolescents have had their cases re-tried, mandatory sentencing guidelines have been amended, (, 2015) and 29 states have abolished laws that allow juvenile offenders who have been convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. (Steinberg, 2017)

The majority of children are good by nature and given the proper supervision, mentorship, and care by a responsible, committed adult, will turn out to be successful. In the cases of the hundreds of thousands of children who are currently in our country’s foster care system who do not have positive role models, we can only hope that a teacher, coach, or Sunday school instructor will step up and be that difference in a child’s life. It is important while studying this material that each student/aspiring Criminal Justice professional reflects on how much need there is for role models in this country and ask themselves the difficult question of “Am I doing enough to keep children out of trouble?” If their answer is “no,” then they should seek local opportunities to get involved because everyone can do something to impact change.

For this essay, I tried to obtain source information from subject matter expert, peer-reviewed sources so I was sure that I was reading accurate, factual information not an uneducated, ignorant person’s opinions on this topic. Some examples of this include: our textbook for this course, the assigned reading article by Lawrence Steinberg, the National Center for Children in Poverty’s website, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s website. The American Civil Liberties Union’s website is where I obtained information regarding mandatory sentencing of Life Without Parole and it offered a detailed explanation of each way this sentence infringes on a juvenile offender’s civil rights under the US Constitution. My final source offered detailed, helpful information about each shift in Juvenile Justice policy from the National Research Council.