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Juvenile Law

Should The Juvenile Justice System Be Abolished?

The juvenile justice system seeks to rehabilitate children, rather than punish them for their juvenile criminal behavior. Since the late 1970s, critics of the juvenile courts have sought to abolish this system, arguing that it has failed in its rehabilitation efforts and in not punishing serious criminal behavior by young people. At the same time, defenders of the juvenile justice system contend that for the vast majority of children, the system is a worthwhile means of addressing problems. They maintain that a handful of violent juveniles who have committed serious crimes should not lead the public to believe that the system does not provide ways of changing behavior.

Critics note that the social and cultural landscape has changed considerably since the early 1900s when the juvenile justice system was established. Drugs, GANGS, and the availability of guns have led to juveniles committing many serious crimes, including murder. Critics insist that juvenile courts are no longer adequate to address problems caused by violent, amoral young people.

Some argue that the perceived leniency of the juvenile justice system compounds its failure to rehabilitate by communicating to young people that they can avoid serious consequences for their criminal actions. The system engenders a revolving-door process that sends the message that young offenders are not accountable for their behavior. It is not until these repeat offenders land in adult criminal courts that they face real punishment for the first time. Thus, it may be better to punish a juvenile in the first instance, in order to deter future criminal activity.

Critics also claim it is wrong for juvenile offenders who have committed violent crimes to be released from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court at age eighteen or twenty-one. Serving a few years in a juvenile correction facility for a crime that if committed by an adult would result in a ten-year sentence is unjust. The punishment for a crime, argue critics, should be the same, regardless of the age of the perpetrator.

Because of these deficiencies, critics contend, the system should be dismantled. Juveniles should be given full DUE PROCESS rights, including the right to trial by jury, just like adults. Freed from the juvenile justice system's rehabilitative ideology and restrictions on criminal due process rights, juveniles should stand accountable for their criminal actions. Once a juvenile is convicted, a trial court can determine the appropriate sentence.

Defenders of juvenile justice respond that a small minority of violent youths have created the misperception that the system is a failure. Though not every child can be rehabilitated, it is unwise to abandon the effort. In every other sphere of society, children are treated differently from adults. For the few juveniles who commit serious crimes and have poor prospects for rehabilitation, current laws provide that they be transferred to adult criminal courts. Allowing this alternative is a wiser course, defenders insist, than dismantling the system.

Defenders also contend that many of the alleged defects of the juvenile courts can be traced to inadequate funding and to the environment in which many juveniles are forced to live. They point out that violent subcultures and early childhood traumas caused by abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence make it more difficult to address individual problems. If the system were adequately funded, PROBATION officers and court support personnel could more closely supervise children and rehabilitation efforts. If more energy were put into changing the socioeconomic situation of communities, rehabilitation efforts would improve and crime would decrease.

According to system supporters, placing juveniles in prison will not end the cycle of criminal behavior. The opposite result is more likely, for a teenager may feel stigmatized by a criminal conviction and may believe he is a lost cause, resulting in a return to crime. In addition, the huge amounts expended on incarceration could be better spent on counseling, education, and job training.

Defenders of the juvenile justice system argue that a criminal conviction can engender difficulties in obtaining employment and in negotiating other aspects of life. It is wrong, they contend, to label a person so early in life, for an action that may have been impulsive or motivated by peer pressure. Preserving the juvenile justice system allows many teenagers to learn from their mistakes without prejudicing their adulthood.

Finally, defenders note that many states have changed their laws to deal more severely with violent juvenile offenders. As long as there are ways of diverting these offenders into the adult system, defenders insist, the current juvenile justice system should be maintained.


Rosenheim, Margaret K., et al., eds. 2002. A Century of Juvenile Justice. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, John T. and Steven P. Lab. 1999. Juvenile Justice: An Introduction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson.

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