As late as the nineteenth century, crimes committed by juveniles were handled in the adult courts. By the late 1800's, reforms in this area began, resulting in a separation of juvenile and adult courts. The state of Illinois established the first juvenile court in 1899. Before 1899, children would go to trial as adults and could get adult punishments such as long prison terms, severe corporal punishment and sometimes even the death penalty (Hartford Institute of Criminal and Social Justice 1). With the reform of the juvenile justice system came the realization that young offenders needed treatment and counseling, not just punishment.
It was also thought that juvenile court should be a different enviornment than adult court. Today, each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have a distinct court system for juveniles (Turner 503). The main idea behind the juvenile court system is that young people must learn to be accountable for their own actions. This may include serious punishment and incarceration, but always rehabilitation.
The juvenile court system is divided into two kinds of offenders: status offenders and juvenile offenders. A status offender commits a crime such as running away or liquor violations. These are crimes that would not be a problem if the offender was an adult. Therefore, they create a special problem for the courts. Recently, there have been many programs set up including counseling centers, shelters and nationwide toll-free numbers for runaways. Sometimes, the court may find the parents at fault for the child's actions.
A negligence petition is then filed and the juvenile is made a ward of the court (Turner 503-504). Juvenile offenders are children who have actually committed crimes. All states have differen policies on the age at which someone is considered a juvenile. Each state, however, lets juveniles be tried as adults under certain circumstances. If the juvenile commits a very serious crime or if he has a long criminal record, he may be tried as an adult.
But many states are trying to make it easier to try juveniles as adults (Turner 504). Connecticut's juvenile justice system was greatly changed three years ago when the state legislature passed Public Act 95-225 which went into effect in October 1995. It was a major reform bill which mandated how juvenile court handles cases and also how police handle juvenile cases. A major part of this legislation provided funds to towns to implement proactive and preventative measures as they relate to the juvenile justice system (Casino Video). In Bristol, for example, the juvenile crime rate has decreased for the third year in a row. This can be attributed to a new youth officer position created within the police department.
Officer Tim Ustanowski was appointed the youth officer and his efforts are paying off. There were 317 juvenile arrests in 1995. The number dropped to only 221 in 1997 and 228 in 1996. The city is currently seeking to hire a second youth officer to assist Ustanowski. They hope to have the second officer in place by the next school year (Bristol Press 3/18/98).
There has probably been no time like this last week when the juvenile justice system has been the subject of national attention. On March 24, 1998, two boys, ages eleven and thirteen, gunned down four middle school classmates and a teacher at their school. This happened in Arkansas and according to Arkansas law, we know that juveniles may not be tried in court. However, given our violent times, Arkansas and the nation may now want to look at the issue of juvenile justice, particularly when young people commit violent, heinous crimes such as what happened in Arkansas. Fortunately, the juvenile justice system is getting national attention these days due to the effort of U. S.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware). Speaking to the National Association of Attorneys General at their spring convention on March 20, 1998 in Washington, D. C. , Senator Biden's speech was entitled "Teenagers and the Law: Our Juvenile Justice System." His speech was divided into two parts: the problem and the solution. Biden maintains that the main problem in the juvenile justice system is that we must, as nation, begin to change the national psyche about violence in the home. When this violence occurs, there must be swift and appropriate justice.
Also, we must help people to get out of their abusive circumstances, helping the children at all costs with counseling and other meaningful interventions. Senator Biden will introduce his proposed legislation on the juvenile justice issue during this session of Congress (Spring, 1998). He believes that as a nation, we are not doing enough to keep teens from crimes. His bill has five major objectives: 1. Combine resources and establish regional detention centers.
2. Keep juveniles separate from adults. 3. Eliminate the sharing of staff between the juvenile and adult system.
4. Establish maximum security juvenile prisons. 5. Link the juvenile justice system with violence in the home.
The country is fortunate that Senator Biden is bringing this issue to the forefront at this time. Juvenile crime continues to be a huge problem in the U. S. and the more resources we get, the easier it will be to combat this problem.