Juvenile incarceration has been an issue that has plagued the United States for decades. Frankly, the justice system has not treated juvenile offenders in the more productive ways possible. These juveniles have been sent off the mental institutions or even put into solitary confinement for their wrong-doings. It has the potential of cutting them off from ever being able to move forward in their lives after serving their sentence, whether that be academically, career related, socially, etc.
Has it always been like this for juveniles? In learning more about juvenile justice from the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice website, I’ve found that the justice system really doesn’t know how to properly work with juvenile offenders. Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, courts were putting juvenile offenders “with hardened adult criminals and the mentally ill in large overcrowded and decrepit penal institutions.” What makes this even worse is that more often than not, these juveniles were committing non-violent offenses. But since the court system didn’t know what to do with the juvenile offenders, they were merely grouped with the mentally ill or violent adults.
The New York House of Refuge was finally established in 1825 as a place for “poor, destitute and vagrant youth who were deemed by authorities to be on the path towards delinquency.” This institution eventually became the juvenile justice system as it opened more institutions just like it in major cities across the United States. These houses, however, ran into problems in the 19th century involving “overcrowding, deteriorating conditions, and staff abuse.” Reform schools were then created to create more routine and regimented lifestyles for juvenile offenders and delinquents, as well as honing in on education. These types of schools are still around today and known as “youth correctional institutions.”
It wasn’t until the late 19th century (1899) that juveniles were finally being tried in the juvenile court system, rather than being grouped with the adults. The Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice website gives an insight on what the juvenile court system’s mission is:
“The primary motive of the juvenile court was to provide rehabilitation and protective supervision for youth. The court was intended to be a place where the child would receive individualized attention from a concerned judge. Court hearings were informal and judges exercised broad discretion on how each case was handled.”
When the 1960s rolled around, there was a lot of discussion on how these juveniles were being tried. Apparently. the sentences were too reliant on the judges and their moods/personal beliefs while they were sentencing. The Supreme Court made the process of juvenile sentencing more formal in the 1960s. For example, “formal hearings were required in situations where youth faced transfer to adult court and or a period of long-term institutional confinement.” Some people thought that by time the 1980s came, the court system was still going too easy on juvenile offenders. By this time, a lot of states were passing laws like establishing “mandatory sentences and automatic adult court transfer for certain crimes.”
The 1990s saw an increase in a lot of juvenile crimes being harshly charged in the actual criminal justice system, even for juveniles with minor offenses. Just like the early 19th century, these institutions were getting overcrowded, the conditions were filthy, and it housed too mixed of a group. This is also when solitary confinement came into play. The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that “Every year, thousands of prisoners under the age of 18 are placed in solitary confinement.” The effects that solitary confinement has on the incarcerated, especially incarcerated youth, is massive. The consequences of juvenile solitary confinement are associated with “serious consequences for mental and physical health.” These juveniles can be restricted from seeing their doctors, denied educated, and gain a lack of social understanding. These are lifelong consequences, even for those in the juvenile justice system who have not committed violent and terribly serious crimes. The APA and other organizations are working to put an end to solitary confinement and finding more productive ways of disciplining in the juvenile justice system.
The late 1990s finally saw a reduced number of juvenile incarceration. At the beginning of the 21st century, many states began reforming their own juvenile justice systems. California, for example, signed Senate Bill 81 in 2007 which “ushered in a new era of juvenile justice policy by limiting the types of offenders who could be committed to state youth correctional institutions and by providing funding to county probation systems to improve their capacity to handle higher end offenders.” As a result, California has seen a “further decline in institutional commitments and spurred the development of innovative programs at the county level.”
The juvenile justice system is progressing but still has such a long way to come. There are still many atrocities that we see, such as solitary confinement, that are plaguing our nation. With more attention to the subject of juvenile incarceration, we can continue to build reform in all states.