Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Abolishing the Juvenile Justice System -- A Reaction to Barry Feld

I just finished reading Barry Feld's article "Abolish the Juvenile Court: Youthfulness, Criminal Responsibility, and Sentencing Policy." It was insightful, interesting, and filled with strong points about the current problems with juvenile justice. This article is well-known and controversial.

The article contends that the juvenile justice system that has been in place since 1899 should be abolished, and juveniles should be tried as adults in adult court. Taken alone this premise might seem like a reversion to the pre-1899 system where anyone (over the age of 7) could be tried fully as an adult. Feld argues against the equal treatment of adults and juveniles in criminal court -- he thinks juveniles are different from adults and that the "sound-bites" such as "adult time for adult crime" are wrong.

The cornerstone of Feld's argument is that juveniles should be tried in adult courts (and thus be awarded adult procedure) and juveniles should receive special sentencing that takes their youth into account. This would not just be a case-by-case instance, rather, it would be categorical that someone aged 14, 16, or 18 would have their sentence depend (at least partly) on their age -- and thus their culpability.

Feld's article depends heavily on scientific studies that demonstrate that juveniles are not like adults. Juveniles are more susceptible to group-think, are less able to understand risk, and cannot appropriately gauge repercussions. Adolescents' brains are not fully developed, and Feld argues that their culpability varies accordingly.

Feld's article comes in reaction to a general sentiment that the juvenile justice system is not working. When created in 1899 it was intended to be a combined social services provider and rehabilitative agent. Considered today, the juvenile justice system has been unable to satisfactorily fulfill either of these goals.

Feld's idea to abolish the juvenile courts is an interesting approach to these failures. He reasons that with the ability to waive juveniles into adult court (and the reality that this happens quite often), many juveniles are being put in adult-like jeopardy without the procedural safeguards (such as a right to a jury trial or to counsel) that adults have. Juveniles have achieved increasing procedural rights (from cases like In re Gault), but not all procedural rights that are available to adults are available to children.

This article poses some very interesting questions. It hints at one major issue -- an issue about which I'm currently doing research. I'm seeking to understand the legal treatment of children when they act like adults. (For example -- the rights of children to have abortions, the rights of children to marry, etc.) Feld questions how our society sees "childhood." I question if we can actually reach one answer. I think that the general outlook on childhood is deeply contextual.

Abolishing the juvenile courts is an interesting -- although probably unrealistic -- approach to solving the problems of the juvenile courts. Feld's article has not received much practical backing, although it is still widely read (it was published in 1998). I wonder with all of the concern over the juvenile justice system and the more recent decision of Roper v. Simmons (2005, abolishing the death penalty for criminals aged 18 at the time of their offense) if there will be real change to the juvenile justice system.

Considering the way the system functions now -- I really hope there will be.