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Juvenile Offenders: Incarceration or Rehabilitation?

Juvenile offenders present a vexatious problem for law enforcement authorities as to how to tackle them. Many advocate the strong-arm approach of imposing stiff punishment and incarceration while others favor rehabilitation. This essay examines the pros and cons of incarceration and rehabilitation to arrive at a way ahead to deal with the problems of juvenile offenders.

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Many countries such as the United States have evolved a system of jurisprudence based on their historical legacy. The harsh geographical conditions faced by early American settlers and the initial freewheeling days of the ‘Wild West’ popularized the concept of retribution and ‘making an example out of an offender. The legacy of those days was codified into state laws, which also crystallized into the federal laws. In America, in early days, youth used to be tried along with adults right up to 1910 when the first juvenile courts were established (Snyder and Sickmund 70). These juvenile courts focused on rehabilitation and not punishment of the offending youth. Young offenders were given ‘treatment’ to ‘cure’ them of their criminal behavior and this treatment lasted until the youth was ‘cured’ or reached the age of 21 (Snyder and Sickmund 71).However, soaring crime rates in the fifties and sixties did not yield the desired results and the rehabilitation of the youth by juvenile courts was questioned. A study of intervention programs by Robert Martinson in 1974 concluded that nothing works when it comes to the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents (Hickey 258) and this premise had popular appeal amongst politicians and criminal justice workers.

States, due to paucity of resources frequently incarcerated the young in adult jails and lock-up facilities, which only aggravated the problem. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Congress passed Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act 1974 (Snyder and Sickmund 71) that required separation of the young from adults. The legislation did not help change the ground situation as creating separate facilities did not address the root causes of juvenile delinquencies that were numerous.

As per law, for incarceration of juveniles, separate juvenile detention centers are set up which are run much like a jail or a prison with strict rules, routine and punishment code. The system however has not delivered any lessening of crime rates as Worall observed that, “The verdict for juvenile crime control, as opposed to prevention, is not a favorable one (325)”. In case of juvenile detention centers, the marked differences that characterize the adult holding facilities such as jails and prisons are blurred. It is virtually impossible to segregate the younger juvenile offenders from the older, more experienced juveniles due to paucity of sufficient special detention centers and limited federal and state budgets. Once in such detention facilities or juvenile correctional centers, the relatively low-level offenders come in contact with the hardened older juveniles who abuse, exploit and indoctrinate them into their ways. This is more likely with juvenile offenders as a large number of them come from broken homes, have a poor socio-economic background and have suffered physical and mental abuse themselves. With such a psychological make-up, the older offenders coerce the younger lot, who out of influence, fear and plain survival instinct end up joining the ranks of the older offenders. The older offenders usually belong to some street gang or the other and thus the detention center or correctional facility becomes a recruitment center for juvenile criminals. Thus, far from resolving law and order problems, juvenile correctional facilities exacerbate the situation leading to creation of more criminals, not less. Studies analyzing the efficacy of the juvenile justice system have also concluded that the system “has [had] no effect on the subsequent behavior of adolescent boys and, at its worst has a deleterious effect on future behavior” (Martin, Sechrest and Redner 385). So in other words by acting ‘tough’ on juvenile offenders, the U.S. Criminal Justice system has only aggravated the situation and has not helped reduce crime or recidivism.

The hard-line approach fails to recognize that the young are not necessarily mature enough to understand the consequences of their action. The Socio-biological criminological theory posits that biological and genetic factors play an important role in the way humans perceive the environment and learn coping mechanisms to deal with that environment. This interrelation of innate biological factors, together with the environment gives rise to human behavioral patterns that include criminal behavior also. Socio-biologists argue that no two people are born with the same brain, brain chemistry and a thinking process that is equal. Thus, the response of two individuals to the same environmental condition would differ. People respond to same situations differently and the learning mechanisms to deal with the environment evolve differently for two different people. The biochemical processes of an individual also determine the person’s behavioral traits. For example, researchers have found that a lack of Vitamins can cause visual distortions that can lead to aberrant behavior. Deficiencies of Vitamin B3, B6 and C have been linked to antisocial behavior. Other researchers have found that diets high in sugar lead to hyperactivity and attention span disorders. When the diet or previously uncontrollable hyperactive children were regulated, it leads to a dramatic decrease in disruptive behavior. In normal people too, it is a known fact that irritation and anger increase when they are hungry. This is attributable in some parts to lowering of sugar levels also called Hypoglycemia. This is because the brain requires the energy generated from the combustion of carbohydrates to function and low blood sugar affects the ability of the brain to function normally leading to a wide range of behavioral responses that may range from headaches, anxiety, depression, confusion and general irritability. In certain cases this may lead to demonstrable antisocial behavior.

High levels of the male hormone testosterone have been linked to aggressive behavior. Allergies caused due to different types of foods, foods added with chemicals and chemical pollution of environment have been known to produce a wide range of antisocial behavior. Behavioral psychologists through neurobiological studies have found that the poor judgment performance of adolescents is attributable to “incomplete frontal cortex and cerebellum development” (Hanson 19). Damage to the prefrontal cortex of the human brain either through injury or due to other physiological factors produces changes in human behavior over which ‘free will’ may have very little control. Researchers have found links between abnormal brain electrical patterns as recorded on Electro Encephalograms (EEGs) and the number of such people incarcerated in jails and prisons. Juveniles with abnormal EEGs have shown a range of responses which includes poor impulse control, tantrums, disruptive behavior, hostility and poor social adaptation. Added to such a wide range of biological factors if one were to add the social factors, it is not surprising that juvenile crime is so common. With such a backdrop, the mechanisms of law have to develop a viable structure to address the ‘Black’,’ White’ and ‘Shades of Gray’ that characterize human behavior especially juvenile behavior.

So maybe it is better to follow the European approach where juvenile offenses are far lower than those found in America. The European system believes that most humans can be ‘retrieved’ if given the right chance and opportunity. Some variation of the European system is found in New Zealand where a pilot program called ‘Project Turnaround’ has met with notable success. “Project Turnaround in New Zealand allows the offender, victim, and community representatives to attempt to come to terms with the crime committed and to create a plan of action for the offender to make amends to the victim and the community” (Political Research Associates 2). In the U.S. a community-based gang program like the House of Umoja in Philadelphia provides residential and non-residential programs for young gang members to wean them away from the streets and provide them education, vocational training and a career as well as employment assistance (Loeber and Farrington 287).

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Such inclusive action helps in transforming the popularly held beliefs that the only way to deal with criminals is through harsh sentencing and exemplary punishment. The fast-paced world with its competing demands for time is taking its toll on the traditional family as a cohesive social unit. Social and economic disparities are some of the major causes of rising crime especially in the inner cities. Juvenile delinquencies of a serious nature are rising in the U.S. and deterrent or coercive punishments appear to have negative effects on recidivism. Therefore, the way ahead must examine alternative, more humane methods of law enforcement than just plain policing. In case of the younger adults and teenagers, “early interventions to divert individuals from offending have been found to be one of the most effective types of intervention overall” (Rubin, Rabinovich and Hallsworth 11). “A judge in a juvenile court should be aware of community resources for rehabilitation of juvenile offenders” (Reifen 193). The approach should include the offender, the victim, their families, the community and the police, in the rehabilitative process. By early intervention, the community, the Police and the social workers identify the vulnerable individuals who are most likely to take up a life of crime. Having identified such individuals, the community then puts into place measures to prevent those individuals from falling wayside by providing them education, jobs and other avenues to utilize their energies. Early intervention also looks at providing counseling to help the vulnerable cope up with psychological rigors of modern life.

In conclusion it can be reiterated that the way ahead therefore definitely lies in rehabilitation rather than incarceration when dealing with juvenile offenders. Incarceration only aggravates the situation where the detention centers act as a recruitment center for creating more hardened young criminals. Coercive approach especially on young people has shown to increase recidivism. The hard-line approach fails to appreciate the neurobiological and social factors which reduce the vulnerable juveniles’ ability to take a considered decision. The rehabilitative approach on the other hand has been found to reduce repeat offenses and has helped bring juvenile offenders back into mainstream society.

Works Cited

Hanson, Michael J. “Towards a New Assumption in Law and Ethics.” The Humanist 2006: 18-21.

Hickey, Eric W. Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime. NY: SAGE, 2003.

Loeber, Rolf and David P Farrington. Serious & Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. NY: SAGE, 1998.

Martin, Susan Ehrlich, et al. New Directions in the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders. Washington D.C.: National Academies, 1981.

Political Research Associates. United States Versus the World. 2009. Web.

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Reifen, David. The Juvenile Court in a Changing Society: Young Offenders in Israel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

Rubin, Jennifer, Lila Rabinovich and Michael and Nason, Edward Hallsworth. “Intervention to Reduce Antisocial Behaviour and Crime.” 2006. RAND Europe. 2009. Web.

Snyder, Howard N and Melissa Sickmund. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: National Report. Darby, PA: DIANE publishing, 1995.

Worall, JL. Crime Control in America, an Assessment of the Evidence. Boston: Pearsons Education, 2006.

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StudyCorgi. "Juvenile Offenders: Incarceration or Rehabilitation?" October 30, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/juvenile-offenders-incarceration-or-rehabilitation/.

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