Confusing Classifications: Inconsistencies in US Juvenile Justice

By: Katherine Ergil

To find data concerning juvenile arrests and the lives of those in juvenile justice systems within the United States is a  daunting task. Due to inconsistencies between states and even within states when defining who a juvenile is in relation to criminal prosecution, overarching data is hard to collect.

The federal legal opinion that is binding on states concerning juvenile justice came as a result of the Supreme Court case: In re Gault. The Juvenile Law Center lays out the consequences of this case which guarantees children legal representation, the right to confront witnesses testifying against them, protection against double jeopardy and the right to have charges proven beyond a reasonable doubt. With exception of this nationally governing legal opinion, all other processes and rules are established at the state level. This disconnect between different states concerning their legal regulations for children and even their rules concerning who is considered a child has created great uncertainty about how, and at what age children are prosecuted and room for lots of bias in court cases regarding children. 

The age that classifies one as a “juvenile” and allows a person to be tried as a child in a court of law varies widely from state to state and can be contingent on a variety of factors including the severity of a crime. Across the United States the age of criminal responsibility, the minimum age at which a child is deemed capable of understanding and being held responsible

for their crime, ranges from no minimum whatsoever to the age of eighteen (See the Age Matrix from the Interstate Commission for Juveniles). In addition, the Interstate Commission for Juveniles describes a similar range in the age at which an offense can be transferred to an adult court. The regulations, exceptions and loopholes in which juvenile cases can be transferred to adult courts are incredibly complex and can lead to worsening issues for youth within the juvenile justice system. 

Research shows overwhelmingly negative impacts of incarcerating juvenile delinquents (especially in adult prisons) as well as undeniably higher costs compared to more effective restoration programs. When juvenile delinquents are locked up, re-arrest rates rise, a shocking twenty nine percent for those incarcerated in adult facilities according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The average cost of a year-long intervention program for a child at risk of entering the juvenile justice system is $4,300 while the average cost of incarcerating one juvenile for the same length of time can range anywhere from $35,000 to $64,000.

With the apparent difference in cost, it seems like an obvious choice to work preemptively to prevent the need for incarceration, and yet it does not happen as much as it should. The chart above from the Prison Policy Initiative illustrates that the majority of confined juvenile offenders are held in highly restrictive facilities. The reason for this is reflected in government officials looking for quick-fix solutions that may reduce crime in the short term, but will backfire in the future.

Unfortunately, in the past few years, states have stopped making funding rehabilitation focused projects a priority. They have instead spent even more on corrections and correctional facilities, many states spending more on those institutions than they do higher education. The shifting of state goals from rehabilitation to punishment has consequences.

As children are incarcerated at a young age, experience barriers to employment and education, placing them in a position where they are at higher risk to re-enter the prison system once more, ultimately costing taxpayers more money, the incarcerated and those affected by their crimes, more suffering. 

An additional issue is that within each state there are a variety of criteria that can be discretionarily applied allowing prosecutors and judges to place juveniles into the adult justice system or not. This permits significant bias to enter the system. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, since 2009, juvenile arrests have decreased a great deal in the United States, about 62 percent between 2009 and 2019.

Within those  decreasing numbers, there are glaring  disparities in the proportions of different races being arrested, being tried as adults and being prosecuted. The image above from the Humans Rights Watch displays the racial disparities in juveniles being transferred to adult court. This is an area in which the lack of national regulation allows discrimination to easily take place. With the many contingent factors that determine whether a juvenile case will move to an adult court, discriminatory practices often slip by unnoticed. These include the much higher percentages of children of color being over criminalized.

This problem has worsened due to the inability to compare data across states as a result of a lack of consistency between state laws in the United States. Implementing and improving rehabilitative and restorative facilities for incarcerated youth is an important part of improving the juvenile justice system in the United States. For this to happen there must first be an effort to establish consistent regulations across the nation to equalize the treatment of youth. What is truly lacking within this system is consistency, and therefore equality.

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