The creation and proliferation of a separate youth justice system in the United States has not been without debate. How youth are sentenced has changed considerably over time. Many of these changes relate to how people understand the purposes of a separate youth justice system and what sentencing youth should accomplish. The establishment of a separate youth court was in many ways a response to perceptions that the sentencing of youth similarly to adults was unethical. Early youth justice reformers believed that youth should be seen as different from adults and that responses to their delinquency should also be different. In the late 19th century, a separate youth court was established to address the transgressions of youth. The court was established under the philosophy of parens patriae (a doctrine that grants power to the state to act on behalf of an individual in need of protection). While the adult criminal justice system provided individual legal protections to offenders (for example, due process), the youth justice system in its early history did not recognize these same protections for youth. This became an important point of debate. Some argued that the lack of procedural protections for youth was unethical and could result in unfair sentencing outcomes for youth, while others argued that these legal protections were unnecessary in the youth court because its purposes and guiding philosophies were fundamentally different from the adult criminal court. It was not until the 1960s that due process and other constitutional protections were recognized for young persons processed and sentenced in the youth courts.
Over time the court has retained a relatively broad scope of power in addressing youth delinquency. Youth may still be brought before the court and sentenced for both violations of the criminal law as well as for status offenses (noncriminal transgressions such as truancy). In the youth court, the focus of sentencing is on individual treatment and acting in the best interests of the youth. The power of the court in sentencing youth for both criminal and noncriminal behaviors has not been without debate. The power of the state to intervene and sentence youth involved in noncriminal matters for their own protection has raised debate on whether delinquent youth, for example, truant youth, should be sentenced similarly to criminally involved young persons. For example, in sentencing a youth for truancy, the court may first impose a truancy order. It is then within the power of the court to sentence youth who violate the truancy order to a short term in a detention facility (up to seven days). This example demonstrates one of the ethical dilemmas in sentencing delinquent and criminally involved youth because if sentences to custody are to be reserved for more serious cases, the use of custody for noncriminal matters may appear to be a disproportionate response.
In establishing a separate youth justice system, there was recognition that the capacities of youth were different from adults in important ways and these differences should be recognized in the sentencing of young offenders. For example, youth were seen as more amenable to change and thus rehabilitative sentences were likely to be more successful. In addition, youth were seen as developmentally different and thus prone to, for example, greater levels of risk-taking behaviors. These age-related characteristics made youth a special group that required different sentencing practices.
The difficulty for legislators has been in determining for the purposes of criminal law what the legal age of adulthood should be. In most states, how youth are sentenced changes significantly at about 18 years of age; though there is some variation among states, with changes occurring between 16 and 19 years of age. It is at these points where youth transition from childhood/adolescence to adulthood for the purposes of criminal law. This legal classification of youth is a somewhat arbitrary legal decision and can lead to concerns over the ethicality of the categories across jurisdictions. For example, in some jurisdictions 17-year-olds are sentenced as adults while in other jurisdictions this does not occur until a young person turns 19. These jurisdictional differences reflect the difficulties in legally defining when the capacities of youths and adults converge. Because these defined categories between childhood and adulthood exist, it also raises concerns about the transition between childhood and adulthood in criminal justice sentencing. Scholars have argued that this transition from a system that typically sentences youth with the primary goal of rehabilitation to one that emphasizes punishment for punishment’s sake is too abrupt. Indeed, David Farrington and his colleagues argued that special legal provisions should exist for young adult offenders that would recognize the cognitive similarities between youth aged 18 to 24 and youth aged 15 to 17.
The tensions between the rehabilitative goals of a separate youth court (and ultimately the purpose of the sentences it hands down) have conflicted with the increasingly punitive sentences young offenders have received in recent decades. While rehabilitative sentences can result in significant interventions and lengthy sentences, the primary goal is to rehabilitate the offender and ultimately have these youths integrated into society. The rehabilitative focus of the court has at times been seen as an inappropriate intervention for certain types of cases. A small but significant number of youth, typically those accused of serious crimes or those who have not previously responded to treatment, are transferred to adult criminal court. Indeed, across the United States provisions exist for transferring youth to adult criminal court, and sentences for these youth may be similar to those handed down to adult offenders convicted of similar offenses. The difference in sentencing practice between the youth court and the adult criminal court is significant. A youth court sentence focuses on individualized treatment that is in the best interest of the young person, while the adult criminal court sentence focuses on the seriousness of the offense and how to punish the youth most effectively for that offense.
The death penalty and mandatory sentences of life without parole are two types of criminal court sentences for youth that have resulted in debate and ultimately U.S. Supreme Court majority decisions. In a number of cases the Supreme Court has acknowledged that youth are developmentally different than adult offenders and that these differences warrant consideration in deciding the severity of sentences handed down to young offenders. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the court acknowledged the differences in the capacities of juveniles and adults and that these differences should protect youth from imposition of the death penalty. Similarly, the court in its decisions in Graham v. Florida (2011), Miller v. Alabama (2012), and Jackson v. Hobbs (2012) found that imposition of mandatory sentences of life without parole for youth violated the principle of proportionality in sentencing (for homicide and nonhomicide offenses), and that age-related developmental capacities of youth must be acknowledged when considering the imposition of the justice system’s harshest penalties.
The arguments of early youth justice reformers have been sustained over time and indeed have been reaffirmed by these Supreme Court decisions. The majority opinions on these issues reinforce arguments that there are significant differences in the capacities of adult and juvenile offenders and that these must be taken into account in sentencing practices for young offenders.
- Farrington, David P., R. Loeber, J. C. Howell. “Young Adult Offenders: The Need for More Effective Legislative Options and Justice Processing.” Criminology, v.11/4 (2012).
- Kupchik, Aaron. Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
- Zimring, Franklin. E. American Juvenile Justice.
- New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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