Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Staging New Beginnings for the Juvenile Justice System"Children are different," affirmed Justice Elena Kagan in her written statement on the Supreme Court's ruling to abolish mandatory sentencing of life without parole for all juveniles convicted of murder. As simple as her statement may at first sound, she's right. The Court considered new research on childhood brain development as evidence in demonstrating juveniles' level of immaturity and their challenge in appreciating responsibility and consequences. The previous mandate seemed to ignorantly disregard the uniqueness of juvenile by sentencing each individual to life without parole regardless of age-related characteristics or situational differences, like family neglect or abuse for example. So, why has the story of the juvenile justice system played out so dramatically? And why did it take so long for this change in sentencing? The justice system for youth, however, has never been simple.

The juvenile justice system might be better viewed as an uncontrolled entity with a tumultuous history creeping behind it. Progress in the adult criminal court system in the 1960's improved representation of delinquent youth in the juvenile justice system for a span of two decades, allowing them rights similar to those of adults.  These changes were halted in the 1980's on the brink of rising crime rates during the crack epidemic which produced more violence among juveniles and a simultaneous increase in juvenile unemployment for those who could work. In response to these events, between 1985 and 1993 the juvenile justice system proceeded with a hard-knocking gavel:  juveniles were tried as adults when possible and sentencing verged on vengeful. The justice system no longer had a vision of rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents. Punishment was the intended goal and courts made that known. 

After decades of using an unwavering iron fist approach--a method with questionable effectiveness to begin with--the juvenile justice system and the Supreme Court are focusing instead on extending a hand to juvenile delinquents. The recent ruling might come as unexpected for some, but it falls in line with a
series of decisions made by the court starting in 2005, most notably abolition of the juvenile death penalty.

Though the Court’s recent ruling is unmistakably controversial and has received both appraisal and backlash from the American audience, the Supreme Court has sounded a blow-horn to awaken communities and inspire discussion on how juvenile justice will be best approached in the future.
Youth courts, for example, in which juveniles appear for trial in front of a jury that consists of teenagers who were previous offenders, appear to be working rather well and pose a possible solution for delinquents who commit more minor crimes. States across the country are looking to reform their juvenile justice systems as well.  New York City lawmakers recently launched the Close to Home initiative that looks to introduce juvenile delinquents to rehabilitative facilities that are closer to home to "help give them structure and support and alternatives." Support,  structure and alternatives seem of paramount importance considering the previously unsteady (and largely unsuccessful) foundations and rotting floorboards of the juvenile justice system.

With progressive action being taken in the juvenile justice system on all levels, the stage has been set. Anticipation is building and it's time for the system's cast of characters to act according to the Court's new rulings to implement a reformative, youth-focused approach worthy of applause.

Camil Sanchez-Palumbo, Intern

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