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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court

New Policy Directions

Lawmakers throughout the country began to experiment with an array of new policy options for young offenders. For example, some states gave judges the power to "blend" criminal court sentences with juvenile court dispositions. Some jurisdictions passed blended sentencing laws that allowed judges to sentence juveniles directly to either juvenile or adult corrections. Other jurisdictions allowed judges to impose sentences that sequentially confined offenders to juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Young offenders would be confined in juvenile facilities until they reached a certain age and then they would be transferred to adult facilities to serve the remainder of their sentences. By the end of the 1990s, at least twenty states had enacted some form of blended sentencing (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia) (Torbet and Szymanski, 1998:6).

Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum policies for juveniles also began to proliferate during the 1990s. As of 1997, 17 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some type Figure 5 SOURCE: Howard Snyder and Melissa Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999. P. 146. of mandatory minimum sentencing for at least some juvenile offenders (Torbet and Szymanski, pp. 7–8). Typically, sentencing guidelines apply only in cases involving violent or serious juvenile offenders as defined by statute. For example, Massachusetts adopted a law that required juveniles at least fourteen years of age who were found responsible for first-degree murder to serve a sentence of at least fifteen years in a correctional facility and juveniles found responsible for second-degree murder were required to serve at least ten years.

Some jurisdictions applied sentencing guidelines to young offenders by first requiring that they be tried in criminal court, but others (e.g., Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming) applied formal sentencing guidelines to the juvenile court. Juvenile dispositions were required to be consistent with a predefined sentencing menu based upon the most recent offense and prior record. The use of structured sentencing contradicted the basic premise of juvenile justice by making dispositions proportional to the severity of an offense rather than to the characteristics and life problems of an offender. Their existence highlights the extent to which the juvenile court has been replaced by a modified criminal court for youthful offenders.

Another significant departure from the traditional juvenile court concept is the growing popularity of allowing juvenile court records to follow young adults into criminal court. By allowing criminal court judges to consider a defendant's prior juvenile court record at the time of sentencing, states altered the terms of the agreement that created the juvenile court system in the first place. Originally, juveniles essentially agreed to receive less due process in juvenile court in exchange for a less formal, nonstigmatizing, and nonpermanent disposition. By the 1990s, however, the emergence of policies that permitted juvenile court records to enhance the severity of criminal court sentences revoked this arrangement. Defendants could now be imprisoned for many years as a direct result of a previous adjudication in juvenile court. As of 1997, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had statutes, court rules, or case law that allowed this practice (Sanborn, p. 209).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Origins, Expansion, Retrenchment, Structure, Personnel, Process, Caseload, Juvenile Rights, Continuing Controversies