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Juvenile Law and Justice - Juvenile Law

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The general concept of a juvenile law is widely accepted. Most persons agree that children should not be treated the same as adults under the law. There are, however, differing opinions as to the methods and results of contemporary juvenile law, especially that body of law dealing with juvenile crime. In the 1960s, when juveniles gained many of the same constitutional procedural rights as adults (In re Gault [1967]), the trend in juvenile law was rehabilitation and education of juvenile transgressors. Since the late 1980s, public discussion of juvenile law has been dominated by calls for stricter controls and harsher punishments. Juveniles accused of crimes were transferred to adult court in record numbers during the 1990s. In 1995, Professor John J. Dilulio, Jr. wrote an article called "The Coming of the Super-Predators" for The Weekly Standard. Dilulio's dramatic treatise, which documented the increasing rate of violent crime and homicides by juveniles, touched a nerve around the country. The term "super-predator" quickly became a commonplace expression for describing juveniles responsible for the perceived increase in violent crime. According to James Q. Wilson, Professor of Public Policy for the University of California at Los Angeles, these were juveniles who, when caught for a crime, "show us the blank, unremorseful stare of a feral, presocial being." U.S. Representative Bill McCollum proposed legislation in 1996 called the Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996. The bill, designed to automatically prosecute repeat violent federal offenders as adults and to increase jail time for certain crimes, was re-named after it received harsh public criticism. The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997 was still pending in Congress at the time of this writing.

Critics of the shift toward punishment of juveniles note that the public perception of juvenile crime is skewed by political rhetoric and increased media coverage. Juvenile crime rates, according to many, generally remain constant, and the only shifts are in increased law enforcement, the gathering and interpretation of crime statistics, and public mood. Thomas J. Bernard, a Professor at Pennsylvania State University, argues that juvenile justice policies in the Unites States follow a "cyclical pattern" in which a lenient period is followed by a period of harsh treatment; when stronger punishments do not decrease juvenile crime, another lenient period of reform, rehabilitation and education ensues. For some juvenile law observers, the only answer is increased education and rehabilitation. Charles J. Aron and Michele S.C. Hurley, two juvenile law practitioners writing for the publication Champion, submit that "[m]any juvenile offenders live lives more problematic and horrific than most adults can imagine. Such backgrounds call for rehabilitation, not punishment; opportunity, not ostracism. They are, after all, children."

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