In the juvenile justice system there has been a definite push for alternative dispute resolution (ADR), as opposed to systematic prosecution of juveniles. However, many states have failed to successfully implement an effective model. Since the turn of the 20th Century, states have struggled with how to structure juvenile courts. Similarly, the courts have generally failed to find a balance between providing a paternalistic remedy to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents and punitive measures used for adult offenders.
Unlike the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system is designed to serve the “best interest of the child.” The disposition of the cases should not result in punishment but rather rehabilitation and prevention of recidivism, which would likely divert the juvenile from becoming an adult offender. Many states claim to be transitioning from a punitive approach to a rehabilitative approach. Accompanying this shift is the attempted use of alternative dispute resolution tools in an attempt to keep the juvenile out of the system.
The national movement to reform juvenile justice began with the Juvenile Justice Act of 1899. Illinois passed the act and every state except two followed by 1925. The goal was to be more paternalistic and rehabilitative, as opposed to a punitive focus which exists in adult criminal court. However, with this new view also came fewer procedural protections for juvenile offenders. In fact, the juvenile justice system was considered a civil court, rather than a criminal court. The lack of procedural protections became a concern for juvenile justice reformers in the middle of the 20th century.
A radical shift occurred in 1967, when In re Gaultwas decided. The holding of the case brought new protections to the juvenile justice system such as notice of specific charges, assistance of counsel, protection against self- incrimination and the ability to appeal. Another case established the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in juvenile court cases. However, there was a jump in juvenile violent crime in the 1980s. This fueled the argument by critics that the new procedural rights “crushed the rehabilitative focus.” By mimicking adult criminal court, critics argued, the system was now focused on guilt and sentencing, preventing the court from “intervening early, informally and aggressively. With this ruling came the criticism that juveniles are being denied both “justice and protective services.”
Culpability is defined differently with juveniles than with adults. In one famous Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that the ‘immature judgment of youth’ prohibited the execution of adolescents who committed offenses before reaching 16 years of age. This solidified the fact that courts view juveniles differently than adults. Typically, a judge considers what is in the “best interest of the child” and community. In other words, there is not supposed to be correlation between what crime the child committed and the disposition. Although in the “best interests of the child” is the legal standard for juvenile cases, it is not always a reality.
The juvenile delinquency process is handled in the same general way throughout the United States. The case obviously starts with the incident itself. There is either police involvement or a citizen complaint and a child can be taken into custody. Similar to adult criminal court, there must be probable cause for an arrest warrant. The child may also be detained if there are grounds to believe the child is in immediate danger or the child is a run-away. If none of the above requirements exist the child cannot be placed in a detention center.
One recent type of ADR used in the juvenile system are called Drug Courts. They are an attempt to return to the rehabilitative focus of the original juvenile system and to address the underlying problems of drug and alcohol abuse that lead children to crime. Drug Courts are voluntary and many lawyers do not advocate for it because the rules are very stringent. The child may not be able to abide by them.
For example, there is random and frequent drug testing, mandatory participation in treatment, regular court hearings, case management, a requirement to obtain a high school diploma, a requirement to obtain gainful employment and finally completion of 6 phase program. The programs last an average of 18 months. A 14 or 15 year old cannot be expected to show up to regular court hearings, due to lack of resources including simple transportation. Many also lack the cognitive ability to receive a diploma simply because they dropped out of school at an early age. Additionally, many children do not have access to transportation to make the hearings and classes.
Although this curriculum would be beneficial if completed, many teens lack the resources to comply, resulting in a violation and detention. Also in an adult court the incentive for the client to complete a drug program is a clean record. However in juvenile court, the child does not have a record or the record is sealed.
One of the few successful models is the “Missouri Model” and many states have attempted to copy the system because Missouri’s has one of the lowest recidivism (re-offender) rates the country. Their success has been attributed to their “caring, personal approach rather than a correctional approach to treating young people.”
The “Missouri Model” is comprised of 6 essential components. First, each region has community services for low-risk youth aimed at creating diversion, rather than placement into a juvenile facility. Second, the Missouri Model offers group rehabilitative service, where the child meets in a small group to acquire appropriate social skills and relationships. Also there is a collaborative effort within the system to connect the child with their family and community. An example of this effort is the placement of treatment facilities within close proximity to where the child lives. Next the “Missouri Model” ensures that the staff is well trained with adequate education (at least 60 hours of college credit.) Finally, the design of the facilities mimics that of a home rather than a correctional facility.
The effectiveness of Missouri’s juvenile justice system is proven by the low recidivism rates. However, many states either decline to follow the model or do not implement enough of the programs to be successful. Despite the effectiveness of Missouri’s model, other states fail to appropriate sufficient funds to the juvenile population. Many of this is attributed to conservative viewpoints’ surrounding the ability to rehabilitate juveniles, often based on race and class stereotypes.
History has shown that the juvenile justice system has deviated from its original intent. Even though the legal standard is still the “best interests of the child”, the majority of states have proven incompetent to fulfill the goals of the court. Once a child has entered the system, examples have shown time and time again that the juvenile is not getting the help they need due to meager resources. Furthermore, the rates of recidivism in many states are through the roof, proving that overall the juvenile system is in great need of reform. The only other option are drug courts, which are ineffective. The country is in dire need of reforms to keep the children out of the system entirely, which will inevitably lead to a decline in adult crime and relieve the economic effects of overcrowded prisons.
Authored by Nicole Shoener, LegalMatch Legal Writer