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Fixing the source: Rehabilitating the juvenile justice system

Something cannot come from nothing; is the way we’re treating juvenile offenders creating the larger problems we see in adult offender populations?


Unidentified youthful offenders at Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility walk around the track during recreation time Tuesday, May 12, 2009, in Columbus, Ohio.

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Up until this point, most of my attention, research, and resulting promulgations have focused specifically on adult offenders within correctional institutions. My work history has been geared primarily to the jail and prison environment, and I have not adequately evaluated nor investigated the issues revolving around America’s juvenile justice system. I apologize for my neglect, because juvenile justice is, to me, the most important facet in contemporary criminal justice.

Aristotle’s theory of origin through metaphysics suggests that something cannot simply come out of nothing; something must literally be set into motion by something else. In this case, there is always a cause to an effect because one relies on the other (Freudenthal, 1995). What I deduce from this theory is that there is a basic evolution to everything in life, natural progressions that steer the course for consequent outcomes. With this in mind, I delve happily into our current state of affairs with juvenile justice and its subsequent effects on our adult corrections systems.

Does the juvenile justice system represent a possible origin of our issues in the adult correctional environment? This is the question that most intrigues me and is the question that I will attempt to shed light upon. Also, is there a better way to conduct juvenile justice so as to positively impact our adult system?

Cocozza & Skowyra (2000) articulated that the mental health needs of juveniles in the juvenile justice system have only recently been addressed with adequate attention. Additionally, youth within the juvenile justice system experience substantially higher rates of mental disorders (with subsequent drug abuse) than youths that are in the general population. To me, this is a prolific “sign of things to come,” simply because our adult correctional system is also plagued with inmates who have diagnosed mental health disorders. Perhaps these juveniles made their way into the adult system?

According to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (2003), approximately half of the juvenile offenders who spent time with the Oregon Youth Authority went on to become adult criminals. Interestingly, crimes of burglary, robbery, and auto theft were the most prevalent amongst these juvenile offenders turned adult criminals.

The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (2003) also compared cohorts of adult offenders with juvenile records from the years 1976 to 1979; more than 60 percent of those with juvenile records entered the adult corrections system. It seems to me that there is an incredibly high correlation between having a juvenile record and the propensity to commit crime as an adult.

Austin, Johnson, & Gregoriou (2000) promulgated that since the year 1992, 45 states in America have passed legislation allowing for juveniles to be prosecuted as adults. This movement has resulted in juveniles being confined in adult facilities at an alarming rate; the number has doubled in the past decades. Is this the right legislation? Does trying juveniles as adults assist rehabilitation efforts or thwart recidivism? Or, do we need to look at our current juvenile justice system and formulate reconstruction?

Currently, America’s juvenile justice system operates mostly under the ideal of parens patriae, Latin for the philosophy of the state acting as the parent toward juveniles who are in need of protection. Under this ideology, juvenile sanctions tend to be very lenient and focus almost entirely on intervention/rehabilitation as opposed to punitive adjudication. I have found that the juvenile justice system in America is, for the most part, either very punitive (referrals to adult criminal court) or severely lenient.

Leniency tends to enable further acts of criminality while overly punitive sanctions tend to mark juveniles as criminals, thus opening the flood gates for labeling theory and social learning theory. Has any state figured out this enigma? I believe that Minnesota is a frontrunner in this regard and that perhaps the nation should adopt and implement some of these ideologies in order to “save” juveniles who can be helped and provide punitive sanctions for those who continue to engage in criminality.

In 1994, Minnesota introduced legislature allowing for extended sentencing options for juveniles. This sentencing reform allowed for the more lenient and rehabilitative ideals to be implemented initially and called for extended sentences to be placed as precautionary measures for juveniles who did not respond well to intervention. The “extended sentence” could be a severely punitive juvenile sanction or even so far as referrals to adult court (Torbet, et. al., 2000).

The fact of the matter is that we have a very real problem in the United States; it’s not an abstract concept or fantasy. Although the juvenile violent crime index has decreased substantially since the mid-2000’s (Office of Juvenile Justice, 2014), there are still a number of concerns. First, juveniles are associating with more and more adults and, consequently, making more adult decisions. The bullying that takes place in our nation’s schools is sociopathic, to put it lightly, and “kids” are aligning themselves with gangs, criminal organizations, and other antisocial entities.

I strongly advocate reform in the juvenile justice system. Similar to what I have promulgated regarding rehabilitation, amending juvenile justice may help reduce our adult correctional system population. I am in favor of Minnesota’s reformation even though it did not yield the state with desirable results. In Minnesota, an obvious disconnect existed between the actual legislation and the implementation of the reformation which caused planning, resource, and capacity issues (Torbet, et. al., 2000). A more thoroughly planned transition may provide for better adaptations.

There is no “easy fix” when it comes to the criminal justice system; there will always be downfalls and logistical errors with newly implemented ideals. I feel that if we can successfully intervene in the lives of juveniles, then career criminality would be decreased.

Additionally, punitive extended sentences (like the ones proposed in Minnesota) may allow for the juveniles with high propensity for adult criminality to be deterred through incapacitation at an earlier age. Let’s try to attack the problem from the source! Remember, something cannot simply come out of nothing.

Works Cited:

Austin, J., Johnson, K. D., & Gregoriou, M. (2000). Juveniles in adult prisons and jails: A national assessment. U.S. Department of Justice, NCJ 182503; PP: 1-127.
Cocozza, J. J. & Skowyra, K. R. (2000). Youth with mental health disorders: Issues and emerging responses. Juvenile Justice Volume 7 (1); PP 3-13.
Freudenthal, G. (1995). Aristotle’s theory of material substance: Heat and pneuma, form and soul. Oxford University Press.
Previously Incarcerated Juveniles in Oregon’s Adult Corrections System. State of Oregon, Office of Economic Analysis (2003). Retrieved 10/11/2014;
Torbet, P., Griffin, P., & MacKenzie, L. R. (2000). Juveniles facing criminal sanctions: Three states that changed the rules. U.S. Department of Justice, National Center for Juvenile Justice: Pittsburgh, PA 15219

C.E. graduated from the University of Tampa with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology in 2009 and received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice from Arizona State University in 2015. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honors Society upon graduation. He has held the position of Correctional Officer in both Louisiana and Tennessee and currently serves with law enforcement in the Midwest where he conducts criminal and internal investigations involving inmates and staff. His main focus is on general penology, paying special attention to inmate reintegration, the influence of society, and the future of corrections.