Colonial times were a harsh, unforgiving time for juvenile offenders. Children were subject to the same punishments and were housed in the same deplorable conditions as adults. By the early 1800's, reformers responded to these inhumane conditions and the house of refuge came into existence. Early reformers became interested in rehabilitating rather than punishing juvenile delinquents. There was an emerging conviction that society had a responsibility to turn these young offenders around before they became career criminals. In some of these institutions youths were taught trades, sentences were indeterminate, and the superintendents of the institutions decided when the youths would be released (Juvenile Justice in America, 241,242).
Since the establishment of the juvenile court in 1899, society has been plagued by the problem of how to deal with juvenile offenders. Juveniles often received the same punishments as adults. Since that time a number of reforms, such as creating an aversion toward jail and protecting the “due process rights” of youth have made the juvenile justice system more comparable to the adult system.
As the 20th century continued, the juvenile justice system became based on a rehabilitative/medical model. The juvenile justice system was also based on the parens patriae doctrine. This meant that the state could step in and take over the role of parent on behalf of a troubled juvenile until they began to exhibit positive changes, or became adults.
By the 1980's, there was a transitional period and juvenile justice policy began to emphasize punishment. This was due to the increase in violent acts committed by juveniles and a general feeling that the rehabilitative model was not working.
For a juvenile, incarceration is fraught with danger; institutionalized juveniles are especially subject to sexual victimization and sexual assault. Many secure juvenile prisons are dominated by a subculture of “toughs” who violently exploit weaker inmates. The weak give up everything, including their bodies. Adolescents adopt different roles when institutionalized fitting into aggressive, manipulative, or passive groups. The weak and passive are frequently victimized. The price of protection often involves sex. These victims find themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Some youth come out of institutions more committed to crime and further alienated from society and their families (Juvenile Justice in America, 148, 265, 426).
Juveniles transferred to adult prisons fare much worse. Children are abused more regularly and driven to desperation in prison facilities more quickly. Research shows that children in adult facilities are: five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and eight times as likely to commit suicide (http://www.phrusa.org).
The majority of juveniles in correctional facilities have a broad range of educational, medical, emotional, substance abuse, and social needs. In addition, several problems are commonplace in these facilities including: inadequate educational services, substandard conditions of confinement, undertrained staff, and inadequate aftercare.
One of the biggest weaknesses in juvenile justice today is the lack of support and supervision for youth released back into society. These youth are provided spotty supervision, few services to help them readjust to society, often return to dysfunctional families, and soon return to criminal activity (Coalition for Juvenile Justice).
One important strategy for improving the effectiveness of our corrections for youth is education. Without education, practical skills, programs that help change anti-social behavior, and transition steps back into the community, what chance do these kids have of becoming productive members of society?
Evidence indicates that juveniles who commit serious crimes can be more effectively treated in well-designed, community based rehabilitation programs if the youth can be introduced to these programs before they become repeat offenders (A Better way to Handle Juvenile Offenders).
Preventative and rehabilitative measures have been proven time and again to significantly lower the likelihood of a youth offending. Unfortunately often the results of prevention and rehabilitation programs do not become apparent until long after they are implemented. Clearly a new direction is needed.
There are huge challenges ahead for the juvenile justice system. We must take positive steps within our communities, such as giving families in crisis access to agencies capable of providing a range of services. Parents must step up to the plate and become part of the solution, giving kids the skills necessary to become productive members of society. With the help of caring and informed adults, it is possible to turn these kids around before they become another statistic.