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Police: Handling of Juveniles

Legal Rights Of Juveniles

The creation of juvenile justice systems was based on conceptions of rehabilitation and treatment, not on punishment. For this reason, up until the 1960s persons working in the juvenile justice system and those working in criminal justice generally were allowed an enormous amount of discretion when making decisions about youth. Discretion exists when a person of authority can choose several types of formal and informal actions, or inaction. With increased discretion and no formal procedures to handle juveniles, criminal justice agents could then act in the best interest of the child. For this reason, punishment policies and procedural safeguards that existed in the adult criminal justice system were not regularly required or operating in juvenile justice systems (Feld). The idea was that juvenile justice would be individualized for each youth and it would be based on a rehabilitative and treatment philosophy. Police were to formally process youth into the system only if it appeared necessary to curb future misconduct or if it were necessary given the seriousness of the suspected offense.

In a landmark case, In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court sparked the beginning of a juvenile justice reform that remains ongoing. The legal response to juvenile delinquency has changed dramatically since the Gault decision. In Gault, the Court began, unintentionally, the process of criminalizing the juvenile justice system and transforming it into what many regard as a near mirror image of the adult criminal justice system (see Feld; Bartollas and Miller). The decision in Gault required states to give juveniles many procedural safeguards that were previously only required for adult suspects. Before this time, juveniles had no regulated rights from state to state (Scott and Grisso), though some states did allocate rights to juveniles before Gault, even though they were not required to do so by Supreme Court standards. Two Supreme Court rulings directly affected police handling of juveniles. In Gault, the Supreme Court clarified that juveniles were protected from self-incrimination and that they had a right to counsel (though it is not clear if juveniles, like adults, can waive these rights). In State v. Lowery, 230 A.2d 907 (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles were also protected from unlawful searches and seizures (Bartollas and Miller). The assignment of these and other legal rights to juveniles, many of which pertain to procedural issues in the juvenile court, was supposed to protect juveniles from procedural injustice within the system. One unintended result was that the assignment of procedural protections became the impetus for changing the juvenile justice system into what we see today—a system that closely resembles the adult criminal justice system. The assignment of rights to juveniles varies from state to state, with some states providing more than others, as the Supreme Court only establishes the minimum protections required.

To confuse matters, the age at which one is legally considered an adult also varies from state to state. Most states consider a person to be an adult at the eighteenth birthday, ten states use the age of seventeen, and three states determine adulthood at sixteen. However, this is not the end of the "legal age" issue. As a result of the public's concern over juvenile crime in the late 1990s, many legislative reforms within states targeted the juvenile justice system. Many states have passed offense-specific legislation that allows police and prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults if the offense is serious. While this legislation does not effect policing day to day, it does speak to the current trend of juvenile justice and the desire to get tough on America's youth. These types of legislation are emerging sporadically throughout the states and they are in direct conflict with the initial goals and purpose of juvenile justice. Social science research suggests that youth are not cognitively, socially, or psychologically mature—and are thus unable to process decisions in a mature, adult manner (Scott and Grisso). This "get tough" on kids approach allows the seriousness of the offense to determine a child's maturity—as if the seriousness of the act itself implies adulthood. It is unclear whether this movement to get tough on juveniles has affected police handling of juveniles, or if it will in the future. Research on the connection between "get tough" policy and police behavior needs to accumulate, but one might hypothesize that police might be more lenient with juveniles because they realize that any formal action on their part might have serious consequences for youth.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Handling of Juveniles - Historical Overview And Organizational Structure, Legal Rights Of Juveniles, Police-juvenile Interactions, Police Handling Of Juveniles: Outcomes