What Should be Done to Youth Offenders?

While the main purpose of the adult criminal justice system is to punish the criminal
according to the level of his or crime, the aim of the juvenile justice system is to apply
rehabilitation or mentoring to juvenile offenders in order to prevent further crimes and to
change their delinquent behavior. The core motivating principle of the juvenile system is
rehabilitation. This is because juveniles are not fully mentally or physically developed; they
cannot be accountable for their actions in the same way as adults. Additionally, many
juvenile offenders come from broken homes or bad neighborhoods and many have been
abused. They need a second chance because many have not received even a first chance.
Additionally, rehabilitation is by far the best option for them because of the way they would
almost certainly be exploited and turned into hardened criminals if sent to prison. This paper
will provide further background to the issue of rehabilitating juvenile offenders, and strongly
argue that it is the right approach.
The justice system fulfills an important symbolic function by establishing standards of
conduct. It formally defines right and wrong for citizens and frees them from the
responsibility of taking vengeance, thus preventing the escalation of feuds within
communities. The system protects the rights of free citizens by honoring the principle that
individual freedom should not be denied without good reason. Rehabilitation has as its
objective the return of offenders to the community as cured and viable members of society.
The rehabilitation efforts of the 1980s and 1990s were to a large extent unsuccessful. No
program appeared to be any more effective in changing criminals than any other program, so 
a sizable portion of the people released from prison continued to return (Murphy 49). This led
many to conclude that the best, and possibly only, alternative was simply to remove offenders
from the community, precluding any further vexation and exploitation by them. Since
criminals are thought to be more likely to commit crimes than those never convicted of a
criminal act, it follows that some benefits will be derived from incarcerating convicted
criminals. Incapacitation has the greatest potential as a method of crime control if it is a few
hardened criminals who commit most crimes. If they can be identified, convicted, and
incarcerated for long periods, a significant reduction in crime would be realized. Most
advocates of punitive reform have this perspective on the criminal population. Blame for the
majority of crimes committed is placed on a relatively few compulsive, predatory individuals
thought to commit hundreds if not thousands of crimes each year (Newburn 54). The final
goal behind the punitive reform movement is the reestablishment of retribution. Of all penal
goals, retribution is the most moralistic. It contains an element of revenge because the victim
deserves to be repaid with pain for the harm suffered. Justice is achieved when the
punishment given the offender is equivalent to the harm accruing from the criminal act.
Consequently, a social balance or equity is reestablished and maintained within society. But
the rules are to some extent thrown out the window when it comes to juvenile offenders.
These individuals are categorized differently and there is a separate legal system for them.
By the federal standards, any juvenile under the age of 18 who committed a crime is a
juvenile delinquent. This is a decision we have taken as a society. We believe that there are
serious and important differences between adults and juveniles, and that a one-size fits all
approach is not desirable and will not make the situation better. Juveniles are more malleable
and easy to influence. It is largely believed that the criminal actions of juveniles might be
influenced by such external forces as parental neglect, inappropriate living conditions or 
relations inside the family. Because of these facts, rehabilitation is an attractive option in
dealing with juveniles.
Many rehabilitation programs ask that young people with behavioral problems meet
with adult tutors regularly in order to produce a stable, trustworthy and continuous friendship,
which is expected to influence young juveniles and reduce their anti-social behavior (Maruna
and Ward 33). Such transformation in behavior is possible due to the trust and friendship
between the juvenile and adult—who can listen to and care about the juveniles' problems, be
a role model, give good advice, etc. In such a way, mentoring programs may have positive
results on juvenile crimes' reduction.
The aim of rehabilitation is to develop law-abiding behavior and to encourage
juveniles to understand the consequences of their actions and to become law-abiding citizens.
It can be a difficult process to achieve because it requires the use of both the proverbial carrot
and the proverbial stick. The utility of coercion and socialization is seen in child-rearing.
With very young children, coercion is the only effective control. If the child goes into the
street, she or he is disciplined and told that if she does that again she will be punished again.
Threats of sanction tend to be effective only when they are generally accepted; otherwise,
people simply seek ways to get around compliance, or they may openly defy prohibitions.
Coercion, such as sending such juveniles to prison, may not provide a deterrent. Instead, it
may be much more effective to understand the juvenile’s socialization process and try to rehardwire it while the young person is still malleable. Vedder explains:
To use sociological lingo: the juvenile acquires the delinquent behavior as he does any
other cultural trait of the cultural heritage passed on to him by his group in the process
of socialization. I suggest calling this type of delinquent behavior conformist 
delinquency, stressing the fact that the child becomes delinquent through conforming
with the behavior pattern in his group” (9).
Positive adult guidance, understanding, support and friendship can divert young offenders
and criminals from further involvement in crimes and acts of civil disobedience and help
them join in the rules and behaviors of local communities (Murphy 53). To put it more
bluntly: what many young offenders need is good adult role models. This can be found in
quality rehabilitation programs. Most juveniles have simply started off on the wrong path;
they imitate the most abusive and irresponsible members of their social set or family. With
new guidelines and role models they can begin to adjust their behavior.
It is important to note that instead of seeing rehabilitation programs as a form of
punishment, juveniles participating in such programs should understand they are voluntary
and should consider the program as a positive opportunity to change their lives for the better.
Certainly, such understanding does not come at once; thus the rehabilitation process can be a
long one with juveniles provided with specific meetings, instructions, trainings and
conferences. In such a way, by providing young people with a positive adult role model,
supervision, and continual training sessions, mentoring programs aim to reduce the risk of a
further drift into numerous crimes.
Of course, these are not the exclusive means of rehabilitation. It may be appropriate to
combine a softer approach with detention in a juvenile center or to take similar action. The
carrot and the stick is again a key analogy. Preventive detention applied to young offenders
has been debated for many years. Its proponents argue that it would prevent crime by
incapacitating those likely to re-offend (Russel 85). Its opponents claim that it is
fundamentally unfair because it allows a judge to make a decision about a person's future
behavior. Since no one can accurately predict behavior, particularly criminality, the chances 
of mistakes are high (Maruna and Ward 83). During the rehabilitation period, the form of
sentencing most often used is the indeterminate sentence. Legislatures have set wide ranges
for sentencing, and judges mete out minimums and maximums that also have a wide range.
This allows correctional personnel the discretion of releasing offenders when they are
reformed. No one, other than correctional authorities, particularly cared for this system.
Inmates did not like it because their release depended on the whims of the parole board, and
offenders never knew exactly when they would be released (Russel 61). Judges and the
public did not like it because the term served never resembled the actual sentence given and
was almost always shorter. Still, juvenile laws stipulate that a young criminal can be
“waived” to the adult court for serious crime. On average about 8,000 juveniles are “waived”
through each year (Deitch 29). The “waiver” is practiced in all states except Nebraska, New
York, and New Mexico. The cases when “waiver” is applied include murders or intentional
killing of several people. After careful examination of a case, the judge decides whether the
young criminal should be tried as a juvenile or an adult. New laws specifying set lengths of
sentences for particular juvenile offenses allow modifications of the time served based on the
specific circumstances associated with a given incident (Russel 66). In some cases, if a youth
offender gets sentenced to 5 years, but he is 15 at the time, he will not be transferred to the
prison with adults. The law states that a young offender should be imprisoned in a special jail
with other young offenders under 18 years old (Murphy 88). These are key policies. While
most juvenile offenders are worthy of rehabilitation, we as a society also state that some are
not. They are criminals of all ages who should be locked up due to the heinous nature of their
crimes. To say the best way to deal with juveniles is to rehabilitate them is not to say that this
approach is perfect or will work in absolutely every case. It is simply the best choice
considering the issues at hand. 
Indeed, rehabilitation is part of a larger policy for juveniles who have entered the
criminal justice system. The programs and policies which help young offenders to escape
incarceration are probation and parole. Restriction of the opportunity for probation and parole
often accompany new sentencing legislation. Many states have made it more difficult to be
placed on probation for certain offenses and impossible for certain serious ones. Parole,
which is the conditional early release from prison under supervision in the community, has
also been restricted in many states. In theory, a return to determinacy and the abandonment of
rehabilitation eliminates the need for parole, which was designed to help the offender prepare
to reenter the community (Murphy 71). Yet parole serves another important function of
controlling inmates in prison and is one of the few rewards that can be manipulated. For this
reason, most states have retained it. Still, the administration of parole has been modified so
that the parole date is determined by the sentence rather than by the paroling authority. Good
time--receiving extra credit for time served while maintaining good behavior in prison--is
another major form of reward used in prison to control inmates. Because it reduces the total
amount of time an individual will serve and modifies the original sentence, several states
have considered eliminating it. However, heavy lobbying against the legislation by
correctional personnel has prevented its elimination (Maruna and Ward 55).
Young people are less responsible and more malleable than adults. Many who break
the law come from broken homes or abusive families. Many have never received the support
they deserve. Because they have so many years ahead of them, society has for the most part
chosen to separate them from adult criminals and make an effort to rehabilitate them. This
makes sense as the costs of retribution are simply too high in many of their cases and the
burden on the system and our moral compass would be insupportable. 
Work Cited
Crow, J. The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Offenders. Sage Publications Ltd, 2001.
Deitch, Michele, et.al. From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal
Justice System, Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, LBJ School of Public
Affairs, 2009.
Maruna, Sh., Ward, T. Rehabilitation (Key Ideas in Criminology). Routledge; New
Ed edition, 2006.
Murphy, J. G. Punishment and Rehabilitation. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.
Newburn, T. Criminology. Willan Publishing, 2007.
Russel, C. Alternatives to Prison: Rehabilitation and Other Programs (Incarceration
Issues: Punishment, Reform, and Rehabilitation). Mason Crest Publishers; Library
Binding edition, 2006.
Vedder, C. B. The Juvenile Offender: Perspective and Readings. Random House,

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