In 1999, 100 years after the birth of the first juvenile courts in America, a twelve-year-old boy named Lionel Tate shocked the nation when he brutally killed a six-year-old playmate. The case made headlines because of the shocking manner in which he killed the little girl.
Amid the media frenzy the prosecutor decided to try Lionel as an adult for first-degree murder but offered a plea bargain of second-degree with a reduced sentence. The plea was rejected, and the boy was convicted to serve a mandatory life sentence. The public, shocked and outraged at the severity of the sentence, forced a retrial resulting in acceptance of a similar plea bargain as offered previously (Brink, 2004).
What is ironic about the Lionel Tate case is that while legislators and the criminal justice system seek solutions to the growing problem of youth violence, empirical evidence suggests a return to the philosophies that originally led to the development of the juvenile court system in 1899 (Clark, 2009). In recent years, many unproven tactics have been used in attempts to reduce juvenile crime (Meyer & Grant, 2003).
Early Juvenile Justice
The primary philosophy regarding juvenile crime and behavior stems from early psychology.
When the first juvenile court was founded in Cook County Illinois, the science of psychology was in its infancy and many believed that criminal behavior could be cured. Because children were considered more malleable than adults, it was believed that a different approach should be used in dealing with young offenders. Instead of the punishments meted out to adults, the new court system would seek to rehabilitate, or reeducate juveniles considered delinquent.
Even the term delinquent served to draw a line between youthful offenders and their adult counterparts, for the adult terms would be either convicts or criminals (Meyer & Grant, 2003). Even today, this term holds, for young people processed by the juvenile system are labeled delinquent whereas those tried and convicted in adult courts are counted as criminal.
This very distinction is central to the current debate regarding how and how severely to deal with juvenile offenders. Although the punishments and sanctions meted out to juveniles and adults are similar, the reasoning and goals are starkly different.
Choosing the Punishment in Juvenile Justice
In any case, when someone has committed a crime, there are three basic punishments. These are
- sanctions, and/or
- confinement (Meyer & Grant, 2003).
In the case of adult convicts, the decision regarding what punishment to apply depends largely upon how contrite the offender appears and the severity of the offense.
In the case of juveniles, however, the determining factor is very different.
When selecting how to deal with juveniles, the ideal scenario looks at each child individually and seeks the best method possible to help the young offender modify his behavior. In other words, the goal for juvenile delinquents is to alter their behavior so as to enable them to grow into adulthood free of future criminal behavior.
Of course, this ideal has fallen victim in recent years to overloaded dockets as illustrated by one statistic showing the average amount of time spent on each case in the Cook County juvenile court to be only 12 minutes (Meyer & Grant, 2003).
Starting in the 1990s, a severe shift in ideology occurred within the juvenile justice system in response to the increasing violence of juvenile defendants. Instead of rehabilitative plans the system moved to retributive. Rather than seeking to reform juveniles, the system currently seeks to confine and punish. This shift can be seen in the types of sentences issued (Clark, 2007).
Traditionally, a juvenile defendant who was not eligible for probation may be sanctioned to community service, provided with out-patient treatment for mental or emotional problems, or possibly removed from the care of abusive parents and placed into foster care. In extreme cases, juvenile hall, specialized boot camp, or a wilderness program might be used (Meyer & Grant, 2003).
In recent years, however, these programs are used less and less as states struggle with budget deficits and clogged juvenile courts transfer cases to adult court. Instead of attempts to modify behavior, a system of lock-them-away has become the norm. Much of this new philosophy can be traced to opinions such as those espoused by Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago. He argued,
“Sharp drops in crime at the age of majority suggest that deterrence (and not merely incapacitation) plays an important role. There does not, however, appear to be a strong relationship between the punitiveness (sic) of the juvenile justice system that a cohort faces and the extent of criminal involvement for that cohort later in life” (1998, p. 1156).
In other words, kids will be kids.
Kids Will be…Kids? Or Adults?
What Levitt suggested was that regardless of whether someone received a particular sentence as a juvenile or not, once a person could be held accountable as an adult, their behavior changed. He attributed this alteration of behavior to deterrence, that is, fear of adult sentences.
If Levitt is correct then, given the stiffer sentencing guidelines delivered in the justice system one would expect an eventual decline in juvenile crime rates. That is exactly what happened starting in 2007; the juvenile crime rate has been in decline every year to date (Blake, 2011).
To all appearances, the decline could be attributed to stiffer sentencing guidelines but to make that leap is to land on a slippery-slope. As the case of Lionel Tate illustrates, a stiffer sentence sometimes simply does not make sense nor satisfy the demands of justice. What made that case so unusual was the reasoning of the boy.
The killing appeared neither pre-meditated nor intentional. The child claimed that he was playing wrestler and imitating the body-slams and hits he had seen watching pro wrestling. Because he was applying these techniques to a six-year-old girl, there is little wonder she died a brutal death.
To try Lionel Tate as an adult however, ignores the immature reasoning of the twelve-year-old child. Likewise to try any child as an adult ignores the goal of the juvenile justice system entirely; doing so blurs the line between the two (Brink, 2004).
Finally, the Lionel Tate case ignores one of the fundamental tenets of the criminal justice system, the concept of Mens Rea. While the boy should have known better, clearly he did not. From all appearances, there was no criminal intent in this case; but as with many juvenile cases in recent years, young Tate was to become an example.
The Juvenile Justice Pendulum Continues to Swing
In recent decades the shift from rehabilitation as the goal of the juvenile justice system to retribution and incapacitation has had far-reaching effects on certain communities.
In particular, the gauntlet has fallen hardest on the minority communities with African-Americans and Hispanics receiving the greatest sentencing disparities (Brown, 2009). While it cannot be denied that youthful offenders have become more violent in their behavior, it also cannot be overlooked that there are major differences between youth crime and adult crime.
One stark difference is that young people tend to commit crime in groups whereas adults do not (Clark, Ed., 2007). Considering this difference cannot be overlooked when considering the maturity of the offender. Children tend to seek the approval of their peers and act in ways that will make them appear more grown-up. This could account for the increased severity of certain criminal behaviors.
Easy solutions do not exist.
The Congressional passage in 2001 of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) presumably implements “a ‘two-track common sense approach’ to youth crime” (Brown, 2009, p. 102). This bill aims at drawing a balance between the long-standing goal of rehabilitation and empirical evidence suggesting that some offenders are simply beyond such help.
The goal of the JJDPA is to enable the juvenile justice system to apply social assistance programs to youths who appeared amenable to behavior modification while making it possible to use the same system to punish those not amenable to change (Brown, 2009). Whether this legislation will prove to be the tool needed by the juvenile justice system or not remains to be seen.
Although the line between the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal courts blurred in recent decades it would appear that the division is returning. In some jurisdictions, drug courts and teen courts are taking hold with apparent success (Meyer & Grant, 2003). In these court systems, kids are treated as kids, but held accountable as such. What the future holds for these programs and the juvenile justice system cannot be presently seen.
One thing is certain however: The debate over the concept of parens patriae (Meyer & Grant, 2003) is sure to continue for years to come.
NOTE: For those interested in understanding this issue further, I have come across a great new website called the Public Welfare Foundation. It is a site designed and maintained by students and faculty at Georgia State University. I recommend checking them out.
- “Juvenile Crime, Courts, and Corrections.” Encyclopedia of Law and Society: American and Global Perspectives. Ed. David S. Clark. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2007. 869-873. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.
- Blake, E. (2011, January 9). Juvenile crime takes a dramatic tumble again. McClatchy-Tribune Business News, (), .
- Brink, D. O. (2004, May). Immaturity, Normative Competence, and Knowledge Production: How (Not) To Punish Minors for Major Crimes. Texas Law Review, 82(6), 1555-1585.
- Brown, E. (2009). Crime, Governance, and Knowledge Production: The “Two-Track Common Sense Approach” to Juvenile Criminality in the United States. Social Justice, 36(1), 102-212.
- Clark, M. D. (2009, Summer). Juvenile Justice and a Strengths Perspective: Complement or Clash? Reclaiming Children & Youth, 18(2), 21-26.
- Levitt, S. D. (1998, December). Juvenile crime and punishment. Journal of Political Economy, 106(6), 1156-1188.
- Meyer, J., & Grant, D. (2003). The Courts in Our Criminal Justice System. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.