Rehabilitation versus Incarceration
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Crime is a prevalent factor in American society, and is committed among all individuals regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. The majority of American juveniles, individuals under the age of eighteen, have admitted to committing some type of crime throughout their young life. While the majority of crimes by juveniles are considered petty, non-violent, and overall minor offenses, youths also commit dangerous and heinous acts of crime identical to what we see in the adult penal system. In the last 30 years, Sociologists, Criminologists, and Penologists have witnessed both major and minor changes to the juvenile justice system. What has been recognized as the most controversial reform in recent history is the change from rehabilitation of juvenile offenders to largely the incarceration of minors (Austin et al., 2013).
Background of Juvenile Justice Policy
In the 1960s and 1970s, most delinquent juveniles were given a supervisory probation, or sent to a reform school, for a one year period of time. The phrase, “in the best interests of the child” referred to taking any means necessary to keep individuals under the age of 18 out of the adult penal system. There were, however, juveniles entering the adult system for status offenses. The primary goal at this time was to ensure that juveniles serving time in detention centers for minor offenses were not serving time with juveniles that had committed criminal offenses. In 1982, Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act. The juvenile court process was found to be fair and humanitarian with an emphasis on restorative justice and conflict resolution (Lawrence & Hemmens, 2008).
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Since the 1980s, Americans have continued believing, for the most part, that the current generation of youth is more deviant than its predecessor. It soon became the popular sentiment that the justice system was not strict enough on juveniles, thus leading to the increase in crimes committed by juveniles. Due to the stress being placed on legislators to do something about the “juvenile crime wave” the juvenile justice system went through yet another reformation, yet this time it was a move towards more punitive measures. Regardless of the 1982 Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act, state legislators still had the ultimate decision in writing and implementing laws related to juvenile crime. Numerous state legislators decided to get tough on juvenile crime in the hopes to use serious juvenile offenders as deterrents for other minors thinking of committing criminal acts as well (Lawrence & Hemmens, 2008).
Soon enough, by the early 1990s, it was becoming obvious that the juvenile justice system had been reformed to mimic the criminal justice system. Numerous states passed laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults for certain crimes, regardless of the age of the minor. The strictest of juvenile sanctions included crimes that would cause the minor to skip the juvenile justice system altogether and be indicted directly into criminal court. Confidentiality was also a large part of the juvenile justice reform; over 40 states allowed for juvenile records to be available, even when the individual was not transferred into criminal court. Many of the right-to-privacy and protection-of-a-minor issues that policymakers and juvenile advocates are still debating today surround the legislative reforms of the 1980s and 1990s and lasting throughout most of the first decade of 2000 (Lawrence & Hemmens, 2008).
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Rehabilitation vs. Incarceration
The argument for rehabilitating juvenile offenders versus incarcerating them for their actions is not an extensively old debate unlike others within the field of juvenile of justice. Improving preventative measures, building restorative practices, and increasing access to rehabilitation were long the standard for the proceedings of the juvenile court. Rehabilitation was the founding idea of the juvenile justice system, and a turn away from that completely redefines the institution (Austin et al., 2013). What it seems the average American has failed to realize is that policy actually redefined the purpose and actions of the juvenile court as a whole.
Public safety and protection is the primary concern among legislators, judges, and other elected officials. Allowing juvenile criminals to rehabilitate actively and openly within a community has not boded well among the general public in recent years. The actions of a few principal players have undoubtedly deemphasized the goal of rehabilitation of juvenile offenders to nearly the point of nonexistence (Lawrence & Hemmens, 2008).
In order to fairly determine the measurements for which rehabilitations is found to be more effective than incarceration depends on the concept of success. For the purpose of this term paper, success is defined in term of institutional effectiveness. Furthermore, a juvenile justice policy is found to be effective when it does what it was originated to do (achieves its goal), or contributes positively to the ambient population in which it was intended. In addition, rates of recidivism can provide as an adequate measure of effectiveness as well. In order to present the argument that incarceration is ineffective whereas rehabilitation is found to be
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effective, we will analyze the factors causing incarceration to be ineffective, and exemplify rehabilitative efforts that have proven success.
Ineffectiveness of Incarceration
A turn towards punitive sanctions, however, has not resulted in a decrease of juvenile crime overall. Both juvenile and criminal courts are now almost identical in indicting, sentencing, and rates of incarceration. What is usually found universal among most scholarly works on the argument of rehabilitation versus incarceration of juvenile offenders is that current legislation, laws, and “get-tough” measures are failing to be effective. While there are vast amounts of variables affecting the success of punitive sanctions, these are among the most common according to Lawrence & Hemmens (2008):
- Incarceration removes the juvenile offender from the community entirely which disables restorative justice and community involvement. Ultimately, this keeps the juvenile offender from seeing how their actions directly affected others.
- Incarceration greatly hinders the rehabilitation process for juvenile offenders. Rehabilitation programs are available in both the juvenile and criminal systems, yet few juveniles actually benefit from the programs due to time and budget constraints.
- Incarceration does not teach skills, problem-solving, or conflict-resolution strategies to juvenile offenders.
- Contrary to popular belief, the cost of incarcerating juveniles is exceedingly more than the cost of rehabilitation programs.
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- Lastly, incarceration reflects a serious offense that will haunt the juvenile past their youth since incarceration periods are included in criminal background checks.
As experts have suggested, and research has proved, high rates of incarceration of juvenile offenders perpetuates the crime cycle. If an individual is labeled as a criminal before they are formally recognized as an adult, then society is sending the clear and damaging message that a few actions will always define you in a negative light.
Effectiveness of Rehabilitation
In the year 2000, over ten years since the new policy implementation, get-tough measures were still in the forefront of the juvenile justice policy. Extensive survey research was conducted on public opinion of rehabilitating versus incarcerating the juvenile offender since legislators are to construct policy with the desires of their constituents in mind. To begin, the public felt as though the primary goal of the juvenile justice system was to provide rehabilitation versus incarceration. Secondly, the public favored rehabilitation for juvenile offenders over adult offenders because they felt as though juveniles were more likely to be successfully rehabilitated (Moon et al., 2000).
During the get-tough era of juvenile justice reform, not all policies relating to the system were for the purposes of incarceration; experts within the field were also advocating for new rehabilitative measures such as community oriented policing, restorative justice, juvenile mentoring, and advocacy towards confidentiality within the juvenile justice system. Researchers used the public opinion polls to receive funding and grants for programs relating to rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2011), these are five
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suggestions that policymakers need to consider in order to effectively move away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation:
- Investing in alternatives to incarceration
- Increased community-oriented policing practices and programs
- Establishing small and treatment-specific facilities for juvenile offenders that must remain incarcerated (i.e., murderers)
- Changing current policies that stand in the way of fair juvenile justice reform
- Study and utilize the best practices for monitoring delinquent youth within their communities
- Limiting the eligibility for placing juvenile offenders in correctional institutions
For over the past 10 years, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention have funded a program called the Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP). According to Mertinko & Novotney (2012), “This program provides one-to-one mentoring for youth at risk of delinquency, gang involvement, educational failure, or dropping out of school” (p. 1). Many of the children who first enter the program are of 12 years of age or under, and are already living in areas known to have high rates of gang violence, as well as other types of criminal behavior.
Adult mentors are carefully vetted and then work one-on-one with the children to raise their grades, acquire learning skills, and have a positive environment to work in (Mertinko & Novotney, 2012). Even though the author does not state an exact type of Criminological theory
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JUMP is based upon; it is worth noting that Cohen’s Subculture of Delinquency Theory helps to explain the need for this program. The Subculture of Delinquency Theory states that children from delinquent subcultures have different ideas as to what type of behavior is acceptable and appropriate in society. Therefore, children from delinquent subcultures are lower-income areas are more likely to join gangs and engage in other types of criminal behavior. According to the article, many children enrolled in JUMP come from poorer areas of the neighborhood, and are almost always influenced by gang activity and other types of criminal behavior (Mertinko & Novotney, 2012).
Overall, there has been positive feedback from the program. Students who had participated in JUMP had been close to failing out of school due to poor attendance and grades (Mertinko, 2012). In fact, most of the success in the program lies in the number of youth they have saved from gangs and that have gone on to complete high school and even college. Since many of the JUMP locations are in areas with over 60% rates of violence and crime, many students enrolled in JUMP were originally planning on being recruited into gangs.
Many of the children involved in the program are minorities and live in, or barely above, poverty level. Many children in areas such as these do not feel they have any other option besides joining a gang. JUMP allows children to become close to trusting adults that will teach under-privileged children the importance of obtaining an education. There are numerous other rehabilitation programs similar to JUMP that can effectively and inexpensively deter juvenile offenders from recidivating.
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The Future of Juvenile Justice
As previously discussed, the effects of incarcerating mass amounts of juvenile offenders for the last few decades have been devastating. Juvenile offenders are rarely given the opportunity to forget the mistakes of their past due to laws and regulations that are constant reminders of the crime. For decades, juvenile justice advocates have been working towards restoring confidentiality to the juvenile system by attempting to seal juvenile records from being admitted as evidence in criminal court. Under current law, once juveniles become of age, they are still legally required to provide all prior conviction information regardless of their age when the offense was committed. The REDEEM (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) Act is unlike any legislation that has been proposed in recent decades advocating juvenile justice reform (Melber, 2014). Rehabilitating juvenile offenders is not solely about drug abuse programs, mentoring, or conflict-resolution; it is also about restorative justice. The federal government must restore justice for juveniles if we truly hope to deter juvenile crime.
The REDEEM Act
In July of 2014, Senators Paul and Brooker introduced the REDEEM Act to Congress. This bill seeks to reform the juvenile justice system and the laws in regards to criminal background checks through the expungement of records for non-violent, drug related offenders (Library of Congress, 2014). The act also pertains to the adult criminal system as well, and if passed, would limit how long criminal records are stamped to ex-offenders. Under the current federal law, there is no limitation provided as to how long these records remain (Melber, 2014).
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The ability to expunge the record depends on not only the offense committed, but also if drug rehabilitation is needed, ex-offenders could then expunge their records as if no incident ever occurred. Juveniles convicted of applicable felony crimes would have their basic civil rights reinstates, such as the right to vote which is ironically a process most juvenile convicted felons never experienced (Melber, 2014). If the REDEEM Act is passed, there would also be two chief changes to the current policies regarding the juvenile justice system that could potentially shape the overall future of the system:
- It would federally restrict states from charging and trying any individual under the age of 18 as an adult, regardless of the type or scope of crime (Library of Congress, 2014). Ultimately, this would mean no minors in the criminal system.
- This act would indefinitely and wholly seal criminal and non-criminal records for juveniles (Library of Congress, 2014). Under current law, charges involving drugs, violence, or theft still show when performing background checks on previously convicted juvenile offenders.
Additionally, supporters of the bill claim that it will serve as an effective solution to one of many ailments facing the juvenile justice system today: high rates of recidivism. Previously convicted non-violent juvenile offenders would be able to evade the stigma tied to their prior convictions. To keep prior offenders constantly reminded of the mistakes of their youth perpetuates the criminal cycle and hinders the rehabilitation process. Convicted juvenile offenders are never given the chance to prove they have learned from their mistakes since many of them are denied access to decent employment due to their records. Many ex-offenders would
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be able to obtain better employment, providing them with the monetary stability and confidence needed to keep from recidivating. Moreover, as Senator Paul suggests, this could help the economy overall by increasing the amount of qualified applicants in the labor market (Melber, 2014).
In summation, recent research reflects the need for a return to rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents. Nearly three decades is long enough to recognize the ineffectiveness of get-tough measures for punitive sanctions. Issues relating to the causation of juvenile crime are constantly changing, and so should be efforts to rehabilitate those offenders as well. Numerous experts have suggested that innovative policy change for rehabilitation may very well be the spark that revives the American spirit in the juvenile justice system (Lawrence & Simmons, 2008; Moon et al., 2000). In the last decade, incarceration rates of juveniles have declined by an astonishing forty percent; policymakers must seize the opportunity to pass more rehabilitative and restorative legislation, such as the REDEEM Act, to better serve juveniles and their communities as a whole.
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Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2011). No place for kids: The case for reducing juvenile
Austin, J., Cadora, E., Clear, T. R., Dansky, K., Greene, J., Mauer, M.,. . . Young, M. C. (2013).
Ending mass incarceration charting a new justice reinvestment. National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
Lawrence, R. & Hemmens, C. (2008). Juvenile justice: A text/reader. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Melber, A. (2014). Exclusive: Booker and Paul join forces to reform war on drugs. MSNBC.
Mertinko, E. & Novotney, L. C. (2012). Juvenile mentoring program: A progress review.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Moon, M. M., Sundt, J. L., Cullen, F. T., & Wright, J. P. (2000). Is child saving dead? Public
support for juvenile rehabilitation. Crime & Delinquency, 46(1), 38-60.
Sickmund, M., Sladky, T. J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2011). Easy access to the census of
juveniles in residential placement. Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention.