Challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system

Challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system
Challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system

Analysis of challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system

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Analysis of challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system


Juveniles in society face a myriad of challenges ranging from family abuse, neglect, social media influences, and the unjust criminal system. Juvenile victimization is one of the precipitators of juvenile violence, yet it common practice for risk factors of juvenile victimization to go unnoticed or unattended. Many juvenile offenders are subjected to harsh conditions in detention facilities which only worsen their situation and increase their chances of re-offending. This paper discusses in detail the challenges facing juveniles and the ways in which they can be mitigated. It proposes alternative approaches to incarceration such as community-based programs and intensive collaboration among different stakeholders. It also recommends the establishment of juvenile mental health courts which have specialized personnel that can use a therapeutic approach to point out the emotional disturbances experiencing by adolescents and eliminate them to avoid future offending or re-offending.

Analysis of challenges facing juveniles in the American criminal justice system


Adolescence is a stage of transition from childhood to adulthood. Juveniles are minors in their pre-adolescence and adolescence stage of life, where their brains have not properly developed to the extent that they can be considered as rational and autonomous individuals to make choices like adults as to anticipate their consequences. Juvenile victims such as those experiencing parental neglect and abuse or harassment from the social media are likely to commit crime due to lack of an emotionally supportive environment. Juvenile offenders, on the other hand, when subjected to harsh punishments that they do not comprehend, can easily develop serious mental health disorders that may be too expensive and involving to repair. The punishment becomes worse when the juvenile offenders are placed in detention facilities which are improperly staffed and equipped. The juvenile justice system has put in place specialty courts, early intervention programs and various rehabilitative services to deal with juvenile delinquency. The juvenile justice system aims at helping juveniles realize that they have a second chance. This paper explores the various challenges facing juveniles within the criminal justice system and proposes various solutions.

Challenges facing the juvenile justice system with regard to juvenile offenders, victims, and professionals

  1. Juvenile offenders

            Due to the United States putting too much prominence on rehabilitation and the empowerment of the state to carry out its functions in line with the best interests of children, juvenile delinquency has overwhelmingly grown into a complex topic (Lipsey, 2009). Juvenile delinquency is caused by very many factors including: truancy, abuse and neglect, gangs, drugs, and poverty. Adolescents are in a period of discovery and definition of personality and character. Most of adolescents engage in these risky behaviors as a way of winning the attention of family, friends, authorities, and people around them. Several studies indicate that adolescence is a transitional stage into adulthood involving a constant change in emotions, judgment and self-control. During adolescence, the cerebellum which plays the role of controlling impulses is still underdeveloped. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex, whose function is to influence judgment and reasoning, is still not existent during the adolescence stage. These features clearly distinguish adolescents from adults. This is partially attributable to the poor-decision making and certain behaviors exhibited by adolescents. Evidence has proven that this is the stage where intervention can play a very positive role in the lives of juveniles. Thus, it is not necessary that criminal behavior exhibited during adolescence can be carried on to adulthood if intervention and prevention are effectively implemented (Richards, 2011).

The alarming increase in acts of violence perpetrated by juveniles within the past few years has raised varied public opinion with regard to the efficacy of the current juvenile justice system. From the time when the first juvenile court was set up in Chicago in 1899, numerous reforms have been adopted with the aim of addressing the issues facing juvenile offenders. Clearly, the issues facing the youth are growing larger in line with the complexities and mobility our society.  It has become a common norm in the juvenile justice system to solve issues of drug abuse, running away, smoking, suicide, and teen pregnancy. In addition, juveniles resolve to more advanced ways of solving their disputes by using dangerous weapons such as knives and guns. It is unfortunate that the juvenile justice system is the venue for dumping these overwhelming adolescence challenges (Richards, 2011).

According to a report by the United States Surgeon General, 10% of children in the US suffer from mental health disorders. Out of these, seven out of ten are children of color whose access to mental health services can only be obtained through the criminal justice system. At least $13 billion is spent annually in treatment of these mental health problems. In most cases, most of these issues are not usually addressed or even noticed until incarceration or detention of the child takes place. Therefore, the juvenile justice system plays the major function of detaining children, even though it has been discovered that detention alone cannot help.

Harsh conditions in the overcrowded detention facilities are attributed to the alarming reports of psychiatric problems, stress-related illnesses, and suicide attempts. Many juvenile offenders tend to fall into depression after facing long periods of stress and anxiety following violent crimes. This is capable of affecting the offenders for the rest of their lives (Piquero, 2010). Research shows that the youths who have previously been detained have higher chances of using cigarettes, alcohol, or illicit drugs than those who have never been jailed. The children who were sentenced to juvenile were 37 times more likely to be sentenced again as adults, compared to similarly misbehaved children who were not subjected to imprisonment.

In addition to detention facilities being overcrowded, they are also understaffed. The beds and supportive and therapeutic resources are limited to the extent that they cannot properly address the needs of juvenile offenders. While the cost of operating detention facilities is overwhelmingly burdensome to taxpayers, it is even more frustrating to imagine that most of these facilities only play the role of warehousing children without providing the various services required to address the specific needs of these children. Various states such as Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, and West Virginia have taken steps to address the issue of incarceration of youth. These states are attempting to come up with ways of ameliorating the many problems faced by youth in detention facilities, with the aim of providing community-based alternatives so that the troubled youths do not end up in detention from the outset (Moll, 2011).

                The alarming increase in the rate of children coming to contact with the juvenile justice system every day and the limited resources have resulted into challenges related to effectual placement of juvenile offenders. Laws that govern juvenile justice systems in the US oblige the court to place the delinquent juvenile into the least restrictive environment possible, even though the actual offense committed by the minor is the guiding issue. In reasonable circumstances, the laws require the juvenile to be placed to their residential surroundings and given services based on communal programs.

Juvenile mental health problems pose a great challenge to the criminal justice system due to the fact that there are no proper and suitable mental health services, including inadequate community-based services for those juveniles who have not been detained. In addition, most detention facilities do not have proper mental health services for juvenile offenders (Lipsey, 2009).

Another issue with juvenile criminal justice is that a higher percentage of juvenile delinquents comprise of school drop-outs or minors whose attendance records are very poor. The criminal justice system experiences a deficiency in the provision of educational experiences and programming (Moll, 2011).

Mandatory minimum sentences and lack of judicial discretion have also been a great challenge in the juvenile criminal justice system. 15 states allow prosecutors the discretion to prosecute juvenile cases in adult criminal courts, while 15 states provide for juvenile court judges to cause automatic transfers children cases to an adult criminal court with regard to certain offenses or the age or previous history of the juvenile. Furthermore, 29 states provide for automatic transfer of juvenile cases to adult cases basing on the juvenile’s alleged crime or age or both. These states do not consider the fact that adolescents have special problems and need to be addressed in a special way. Thus, the criminal justice system subjects the minors to harsh penalties that are intended for adults (Richards, 2011).

  1. Juvenile victimization

Today, there are high rates of juvenile victimization due to several patterns among this population. Juvenile victims may be categorized into:

Juvenile victims drawn into prosecutions and prosecutions: This category comprises of children who are victims of sexual assault and abduction, as well as those children subjected to victimization by other children. This category may also involve child witnesses to crimes, that is, vicarious victims. These children usually get involved in investigations and sometimes they are called upon to testify, which exposes them to publicity and stigma.

Juveniles victimized by domestic violence and custodial abductions: Many juveniles tend to have experienced a series of abuse at home that ultimately led to resentment and early independence so that when they become adolescents, they run away as a way to escape the abuse suffered at home. Several studies have been carried out that show the damaging effects of abuse on homeless or runaway youth, including mental and physical health problems. These youth record higher rates of attempted suicide compared to juveniles who do not have an abuse history (Ferguson, 2009). Abducted children become victimized by being deprived of contact with their family, friends, and neighbors.

Juvenile victims within child protection suits: This category comprises of juveniles who have been abused or neglected, although there is also an overlap with criminal justice system victims. The criminal justice system significantly influenced the family and living situation of such children. There is little data showing the impact of the investigatory process on children, the services they are given, the actions pursued in court, and the filing of criminal cases, in addition to the outcomes of such cases. The data on abused children reported is not still sufficient for policy analysis purposes.

Juvenile victims implicated in status offenses: This category involves juveniles handpicked by law enforcement officers and adjudicated by the court for curfew violations, disobedience, malingering, and running away. Most of these juveniles have a past history of being victimized within their family and community.

Juvenile victims implicated in criminal offenses: Most of the juveniles subjected to arrest and adjudication for criminal offenses also record previous victimization histories which play a very important role in offending. The criminal justice system does not indicate to what extent it puts these victimization histories into account while deliberating and adjudicating on juvenile offenses.

Social media sites on computers, the internet and other technology have brought up new venues for victimization. Digital crimes affecting juveniles include cyber-hate, cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying. These crimes can be perpetrated to anyone including a child’s home, thus leaving no safe place for children. Many juveniles are victims of digital crimes. Today, the society is majorly confronted with the challenge of mitigating digital juvenile victimization. For instance, there is a case of a thirteen-year old juvenile who ended up committing suicide after experiencing a cyber-bullying incident from his classmates. There are many challenges faced by the criminal justice system with regard to mitigating the effects of social media on juvenile victimization. A recent research found that there is a close connection between children suffering from alienation from parents and their potential to involve themselves in strange relationships on the internet (Wells & Mitchell, 2008).

The influences of neglect, abuse, and social media are capable of easily leading to criminal behavior and the use of dangerous drugs in the bid to survive and ease pain. Accordingly, victimized juveniles tend to disobey rules and challenge authorities, and they ultimately become offenders as part of this vicious victimization cycle. The lack of reporting makes it difficult to gauge the real extent of juvenile victimization. This is attributed to the fact that school administers and parents are not able to control all that happens in the lives of their children and the intimidation that victims feel keep them from reporting. In addition, the fact that digital crimes and domestic abuses are widely varied and that they can go from inappropriate to morally reprehensible makes it very difficult to create specific laws to mitigate this issue (Meredith, 2010). It is very disturbing that the reporting rate for offences against children is lower than the reporting rate for offenses against adults (Richards, 2011). In fact, police rarely receive reports involving victims under the 12. The crimes that have high chances of being reported include those involving families with previous contact with the police, adult or multiple offenders, and serious injuries. Incidences of reporting juvenile victimization are also low due to the fact that most schools prefer handling episodes of involving juvenile victims on their own rather than reporting to the police.

  1. Juvenile justice professionals

Traditionally, the role of the juvenile court was to intervene with wayward and criminal minors under the theory of parens patriae which empowers the state to stand in place of parents and substitute its authority for that of the family. Basically, court decisions were left to judicial discretion rather than the need to observe due process rights. Recent developments now recognize the right of juveniles to be represented by a counsel as was held by the Supreme Court in Re Gault. Nevertheless, research still indicates a failure in the juvenile justice system to fulfill guarantees of fairness envisioned by the Supreme Court. Inadequate legal representation of juveniles often results in the juveniles being transferred to the adult system and possibilities of life without parole (Lipsey, 2009).

The staffs in the detention facilities tend to lack adequate training and experience to deal with juvenile delinquents suffering from mental problems. This, in addition to the ill-equipped county facilities, often exacerbates mental illness, leading to escalation in symptoms and problem behavior.

Possible changes to address challenges faced by juveniles

In most instances, police, teachers, caretakers and parents often view the juvenile justice system as a means for juveniles to access treatments and services that are not available in the community. This is disheartening because most of the juveniles detained with mental health problems are rarely treated. The problem is that the juvenile justice system lacks adequate expertise and/or resources to effectively act as a mental health service provider for all juveniles. In addition, developing these resources within the juvenile justice system will not appropriately resolve this crisis. Nevertheless, there are changes that need to be adopted in order to mitigate these challenges.

The reduction of reliance on incarceration and other programs which lead to the concentration of juveniles together is necessary. The juvenile justice system should focus on providing proper juvenile options within the community as an option to detention. Preference should be placed on community-based referral sources over residential placement. This is because community-based services provide a better venue for family members to be involved with juvenile justice and treatment providers. In addition, these services furnish the family with educational services to put them in an appropriate position to understand and manage the behavior of their child. Community-based interventions are also less costly and they are more effective than incarceration. These collaborative interventions help families to be independent and self-sufficient as they acquire skills required for successful access and navigation of services independently (Lipsey, 2009).

Similarly, instead of majorly focusing on the crime committed, it is important to shift focus on the individual risk factors for criminal behaviors and their need. Due to the fact that juvenile offenders exhibiting risk factors have higher chances of becoming recidivists, early intervention can be very beneficial to them as it will have a positive impact on their lives and decrease the rates of crime within the communities. Rehabilitative programs comprise of various ways of addressing the problem of juvenile offenders.

With regard to specialty courts, Jordan and Myers (2011) observe that subjecting juveniles in adult jails or detention facilities merely increases their chances of recidivism. Thus, the move to have juvenile prisons, jails, and courts, is very effective in terms of rehabilitative services. Early intervention programs play a very vital role in providing a venue for juveniles transform their lives and become productive in the society.

The local and federal government, as well as various rights-based organizations have been advocating for community-based programs to address juvenile victimization (Shufelt, Skowyra & Cocozza, 2010). There is great emphasis on family support and preservation, as well as independent living where appropriate. These programs aim at providing early intervention and assistance to the victims. These programs have proven to be a success in places where they have been implemented as they instill youth with resilience and coping skills, thus helping them to overcome victimization. Resilience is very important in ensuring that intervention programs are effective. Resilience is the capacity of a person to adjust to hardship and distressing situations. People react to these situations differently in line with their respective physical and emotional restraints.  However, still there are loopholes in different state laws which lead unnecessary injustices being occasioned on the children. These laws need to be reformed in order to help in bringing about children in the best way so as to reduce their chances of offending in future (Moll, 2011).

To enhance the determination of juvenile issues, it is important for juvenile justice professionals to make well-reasoned judgments with regard to the risk of adolescents causing future harm and the likelihood of adolescents to benefit from the interventions. Since the courts have a very great potential to separate children from their family, friends, and neighbors, judges need to receive proper and adequate training, information, and workable facilities. There is need for adequate representation of juvenile offenders and juvenile victims in court proceedings. In addition, it is important for communities to have adequate, safe and effective programs and placements for juvenile offenders and victims.

Criminal justice professionals also need to educate and act as spokespersons on behalf of neglected and abused children in their communities. They need to spearhead advocacy for adequate resources and community systems in response to child neglect and abuse.

Possible resources, organizations, policies, procedures, or processes that can be used to promote fairer treatment of juveniles

Rather than punitive policies, policy makers should completely shift to rehabilitation programs which are evidence-based juveniles can be referred to specific programs which meet their needs. According to Piquero and his colleagues (2010), punishment has the potential to do more harm than good. Victimizing juveniles through punishment potentially results to future offending and a continuing victimization cycle all through adulthood. Effective rehabilitation programs can help in breaking this vicious victimization cycle. Rehabilitation and alternative programs also help in preparing juveniles to reintegrate society through the development of individual responsibility and accountability necessary for the achievement of better outcomes. Rehabilitative programs are also relatively cheaper compared to incarceration.

Proper implementation of the above changes requires adequate collaboration between the juvenile justice system, parents, and the community as a whole. Children need a sufficiently supportive environment in order to grow up in the right manner. The environments with which children interact on a daily basis include the school, friends, the family, the neighbors and the internet (Ferguson, 2009). Thus, the juvenile justice system should collaborate with all community stakeholders to help in ameliorating the neglect and abuse of children. The criminal justice alone cannot cater for all the needs of juveniles. Collaborating with different organizations such as ACLU and community based organizations as well as mental health providers will go a long way in grappling with the risk factors for juvenile delinquency and preventing juvenile victimization.

Local governments should collaborate with state governments to establish juvenile mental health courts such as the Harris County Juvenile Mental Health Court. Juvenile mental health courts have judges who have adequate training and resources for addressing the causal mental element of delinquent behavior in mentally ill juvenile offenders, while putting emphasis on personal accountability and public safety (Children’s Mental Health in Harris County, 2006). In addition, through the creation of community-based alternatives to institutional placements, juvenile mental health courts will greatly help in developing mental health services. The accessibility of services has the potential of allowing families an alternative to reliance on the juvenile justice system for treatment, a practice that leads to the criminalization of mentally ill juveniles. The mental health court adopts a therapeutic approach that empathizes with the emotional disturbances experienced by youth which mostly cause them to offend. The mental health court places preference on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

The federal and state governments need to implement policies that put emphasis on collaboration. For instance, the Juvenile Accountability Block has made attempts to encourage the setting up of information sharing systems for purposes of facilitating effectiveness and efficiency in decision making in the juvenile justice system with regard to the procedures of identifying, supervising and treating the youth (Shufelt, Skowyra & Cocozza, 2010).


The best way to mitigate the challenges facing juveniles is by adopting a rehabilitative approach and other alternatives to incarceration. These will involve collaboration among different stakeholders in the society, including all community members and community-based institutions such as schools and the juvenile justice system. Community-based programs will have a positive impact on the society as a whole due to the fact that they are less expensive and more effective to manage. In addition, the minors will be molded and taught proper values such as resilience and independence, which will eventually make them responsible members of society. These reforms might bring social change because they will reduce re-offending by juvenile offenders. In addition, cases of juvenile victimization will be reduced, thus making the youth to grow up in the right way with minimal possibilities of committing crime.


“Children’s Mental Health in Harris County”. (2006). A Report of the Mental Health Needs  Council, Inc.

Ferguson, K. M. (2009). Exploring family environment characteristics and multiple abuse   experiences among homeless youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24, 1875–1891.

Jordan, K. L., & Myers, D. L. (2011). Juvenile transfer and deterrence: Reexamining the   effectiveness of a get-tough policy. Crime & Delinquency, 57(2), 247-270.

Lipsey, M. W. (2009). The primary factors that characterize effective interventions with juvenile offenders: A meta-analytic overview. Victims & Offenders, 4(2), 124-147.

Meredith, J. P. (2010). Combating cyberbullying: Emphasizing education over criminalization. Federal Communications Law Journal, 63(1), 311–340.

Moll, J. (2011). Ten truths about juvenile justice reform. Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Piquero, A. R., Cullen, F. T., Unnever, J. D., Piquero, N. L., & Gordon, J. A. (2010). Never too    late: Public optimism about juvenile rehabilitation. Punishment & Society, 12(2), 187–  207.

Richards, K. (2011). What makes juvenile offenders different from adult offenders? Trends &     Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice.

Shufelt, J. L., Cocozza, J. J., & Skowyra, K. R. (2010). Successfully collaborating with the  juvenile justice system: benefits, challenges and key strategies. Juvenile Justice Resource  Series.

Wells, M., & Mitchell, K. J. (2008). How do high-risk youth use the Internet? Characteristics and implications for prevention. Child Maltreatment, 13(3), 227–234.

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