There has been a shift in the dispensation of juvenile justice. Everyone saw it coming. Many people demanded it. While some, not blinded by their pain and anger, were more thoughtful than others and asked the questions that others would be forced to asked years later after the die had been cast.
For as long as I can remember, adults in the hood had sought to have young kids either take the rap for offenses which the adults themselves had committed, or have the kids actually commit the crimes, shielding the adults either way. The rationale being that the kid wouldn't receive any real jail time if they were caught, only a stint in juvie. A year or two at the most.
Adults allowed kids to earn their stripes by "putting in work" this way. And the kids coming up when I did were getting more and more involved in the harder street actions: robbing, dealing, murder. We had a desire to show that we were as down as the O.G.'s, that we were worthy to be amongst them, and we acted accordingly. Even though the list of our mental and emotional deficiencies were too numerous to count.
Juvenile detention was a kind of rite of passage. The way that is was set up is that we went there to hone our skills in hand to hand combat, and share and compare the street lessons that we had learned. This was the type of education which guarantees that when the youth is released from juvie, that they would head back to the same streets that they came from feeling more capable of surviving the street life, not with a mind to elevate themselves above it.
As victim awareness groups and other civic groups became more vocal with their dissatisfaction over these young people committing serious crimes, re-entering the same life which theyd come from after a short stint in juvie, politicians took up the cause. People could not see, or were unwilling to acknowledge, better ways and alternative methods of addressing juvenile delinquency. More to the point, when an issue is colored by inflamed passions, and with political gains and losses at stake, understanding and reason can become marginalized or removed from the equation altogether.
One of the benefits of representative democracy is the avoidance of the dictatorship of the majority and government by the current temperature of the people. However, one of the drawbacks is that the political class, instead of taking stock of an issue and applying reason and understanding to the problem, tend to cater to (or manipulate) people for political gain. This ushered in the get tough on crime era.
The escalation of crime and repeat offenses were a clear danger to public safety. Previous governments were weak and ineffectual. The solution was to get tough: hand out longer sentences; treat juveniles as adults, sending them into the adult system; take away the funding for the more effective educational programs while mandating participation in ineffective behavioral modification programs; warehousing convicts until they are elderly or dead. Those who could see that these policies would end badly, not producing the desired results, were denounced for being soft on crime.
So a series of laws were developed turning juveniles over to the adult criminal justice system, while most of the remaining juvenile facilities were converted into miniature adult prisons. This accomplished, victory laps were taken on the campaign stump and at the poll booth. The threat had been met by those brave enough to deal harshly with it, and the threat had been removed from society.
Some of the juveniles who were waived into adult systems were quite dangerous, and left to the elements of the streets, would continue to spread havoc and harm many people. Perhaps if they are left to the point where they begin to detonate in the lives of others there is no way to address their dangerousness without removing them for lengthy periods from society while they grow and hopefully develop their humanity.
If that is the aim. If the aim isn't to simply cast them from society forever, if education and rehabilitation are the objectives, then it has to be asked whether it is more likely or less likely that a young person will develop their humanity if they are warehoused with adults for years. If the aim is to exact punishment for offenses committed, then that type of warehousing should meet that aim.
There are now an impressive list of psychological studies which makes clear that the adolescent mind will not reach full maturity in its teenage years. So it is extremely rare that the dangerous behavior of a juvenile is indicative of whether or not that juvenile will mature and become responsible, moving past their antisocial disposition. Or if they will be forever dangerous.
What then is to be done with these juveniles who have demonstrated that they are a danger to society by visiting destruction on the lives of others? What punishment can purge them of their inclination to do wrong? In a society which maintains that the individual should be penalized for their transgressions, and that the victims of crime should receive recompense in some form from the person who has transgressed against them, that society should ask with a clear mind: how much should the juvenile offender be made to render of themselves to satisfy their debt to society?
The desire to extract the full adult measure of punishment from the juvenile offender requires that the person be written off from society as having a permanently malignant personality. This despite the fact that juveniles, with their underdeveloped minds and immaturity, will at some point cease to exist leaving behind a more conscious adult who did not exist at the time of the offense. If a teen is unable to envision themselves in some form in the future, if they are stunted at that age and unable to place proper value on their lives, there should be no surprise that some of them, being deeply entrenched in an environment where violence is commonplace, will end up as perpetrators of that same violence. It should be expected. The surprise should be when a kid grows up in an environment of ever-present violence and go on in life without succumbing to it.
I can speak personally toward several aspects of this issue. Having taken the life of another as a juvenile, I know that regardless of what a youth may proclaim when they are in their teens, it is not possible for them to put into context the forfeiture of their own lives. They are not able to put into context the prospect of spending the remaining decades of their lives in prison. If this is true, then what is to be said about bearing responsibility for one's actions at that age must be considered in the light of the because there is no way for a teenager to remain the person that they are - absent some severe psychological and emotional retardation, which is not altogether unusual among kids who gravitate toward the underbelly of society, or were born into it.
A rethink is being had right now on the issue of juvenile justice. The development and maturity level of the youth is not rising in a manner that will halt the downward spiral that has been decades in the making. A clear threat can be seen posed by some of the violent and disturbed youth. Yet what has been done to address this in the past - namely more severe punishment - has not addressed the core of the problem and has laid bare the reality that past methods have been unequal to the challenges of either deterring the youth from continuing to travel down that destructive path, or encouraging their reform once they are in custody for lengthy periods of time.
There is a consensus that a different path should be taken, but the political environment is such that it is extremely hard to move the policy reforms that are needed. What aids the slow movement of reform is how those juvenile delinquents are viewed. They are viewed as other. Not only have they been alienated from society, society has been alienated from them. Once that distance is put between people it becomes easy to take the harshest stance, to withhold your understanding and compassion, which allows vengeance, outrage and political expediency to dictate policy.
What is the purpose of punishing juvenile offenders for their violent criminal behavior? One is to prevent further antisocial behavior; then incapacitate the youth to allow for time for rehabilitation, or assess whether the individual is amenable to rehabilitation; also to give the teen time to mature and gain some life perspective and education.
When to view juveniles as young adults worthy of the privileges, responsibilities and consequences of adults, and when to view them as children incapable of understanding adult matters, too immature to bear adult responsibilities and too young to participate in the duties and privileges of adulthood has been debated time and again with different conclusions being reached with the changing of the times. People's ideas on criminal justice change generationally. Sometimes they change what seem draconian to us now, but seemed proper and necessary in earlier times. The previously enlightened can now appear dangerously naive, especially where juveniles are concerned.
However you choose to to view these issues, whatever view society chooses to take on juvenile justice, there will always be a perception of an imbalance in fairness and justice because of the passions involved, particularly when someone is victimized (how much is too much time, how much is not enough). The greater the perceived imbalance, the more likely it is that society will lose sight of the fact that the criminal, this villain, is actually a child and product of that society.
If the juvenile is viewed primarily as a perpetrator of whatever offense they've committed, it is less likely that society will have the wherewithal to address those teens with the understanding that the humanity of the teen has not been extinguished by their adolescent conduct or cruelty.
It is asking a lot of society to deal with juveniles who've committed crimes as though they are children in need of help to modify their behavior and realize their potential to be a successful part of that society. Still, society must in the end do just that, or lose a significant portion of its population to the streets and the cycling through the juvenile system into the adult system into decades stay in adult prison.
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