Punishment Vs. Rehabilitation in the Juvenile Justice System

Written by darryl james
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Punishment Vs. Rehabilitation in the Juvenile Justice System
Is jail the destination for juvenile offenders? (jail in calico ghost town, arizona image by Albo from Fotolia.com)

Meting out justice to juvenile offenders has been a topic of hot debate for more than 100 years, with proponents of both punishment and rehabilitation pursuing changes in legislation.

The original concept of juvenile justice was that children should be treated divergent from adults with milder punishment because of their underdeveloped morality and minimal understanding of the laws of the land. The approach was that if juveniles were given lighter sentences in separate facilities and allowed to have their records expunged as adults, they would be able to make fresh starts and change their lives.

What is the juvenile justice system?

The juvenile justice system has separate courts and incarceration facilities from the adult system. In the juvenile justice system, the focus is on rehabilitating the youthful offender, with the goal of reintegrating the offender as a productive adult member of society.

The juvenile justice system was created to separate juvenile offenders from more hardened adult criminals, who may exert influence over underage offenders. Prior to 1900, children as young as 7 would be incarcerated alongside adult criminals.

Punishment Vs. Rehabilitation in the Juvenile Justice System
Juvenile offenders receive divergent treatment. (jeune hors hangar 71 image by Nathalie P from Fotolia.com)

Age range

The system focuses on juvenile offenders under the age of 18, although the sentence can be extended in many cases, depending on the infraction.

The actual age range varies from state to state but can involve offenders as young as 10 and as old as 20. Depending on the state, offenders over the age of 16 are automatically sent to the adult justice system.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, juvenile crimes increased, prompting a push for harsher punishment of juvenile offenders, especially where bodily harm and weapons were involved. While juvenile crime actually decreased by the end of the last century, the publicised juvenile violence, including school shootings, fed public outcry for more punishment and less rehabilitation.

Recent developments

During the past 20 years, legislation has been passed facilitating the prosecution of juveniles as adults when they commit heinous crimes. Youthful offenders as young as 16 can be tried as adults and sentenced to adult prisons. The idea behind the emerging legislation is that juvenile crime would decrease with the threat of harsher punishment looming in the balance.

Success of failure?

According to a study on juvenile recidivism conducted in 1996 by Northeastern University, the threat of harsher sentences and/or prosecution as adults has done little to positively affect the juvenile crime rate.

In a study focusing on 15- and 16-year-olds, Columbia University compared juvenile offenders charged with similar crimes but tried as juveniles in one state and as adults in another. In the case of burglary, there were "no significant differences" between the two versions of prosecution. However, in the case of robbery, a higher percentage of recidivism occurred in the group prosecuted as adults.

The juvenile justice system has adopted many elements of prosecution and punishment found in the adult justice system, with little success at suppressing crime.

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