One of the biggest debates occurring in criminal justice is the purpose of punishment. What does society feel the consequences should be for those who violate the rules and the laws of their community? This debate can take an even more fundamental turn when we look at the population of criminals. Juveniles pose a problem because many believe they are still young enough to change. This ability to change makes us question if the purpose behind punishment should be retribution because they broke the rules or rehabilitation so that they can grow into productive members of society.
With so many children being sentenced to correctional facilities, both those designed for juveniles and those that are designed for adults, we need to answer whether this is the best way to handle juvenile offenders or if there is a better way to help a child grow and become a functioning member of society, as well as, protect society from criminal acts committed by children.
What is the purpose of punishment?
One purpose is safety. Society has granted criminal justice professionals the task of enforcing agreed upon rules and maintaining the safety of community. This purpose is one that has been keenly focused since around the 1980s when media reports began frightening Americans by saying that youth crime was increasing and youth were becoming more violent. The focus on gang crime helped add fuel to this fire. People want to feel safe in their own communities. They do not want to see a group of hoodlums and feel they are not safe to walk down their own street. Communities also want children to be safe from themselves and the bad choices they can potentially make especially those that do not have strong familial supports. Society feels both responsible for and frightened of children who act out. Because of the safety factor, many Americans are willing to send juveniles to a lock down facility which guarantees the safety of the community, if not always, the safety of the child, especially in regards to emotional and mental safety.
A second purpose to punishment is retribution. When an individual breaks the law, it is almost an affront to those of us who have not broken the law. Sort of like, I chose to follow the rule and you didn't therefore you should be punished. This especially holds true for crimes of violence. When a youth physically harms another person, I believe, society often wants to see him or her harmed as well.
A third purpose of punishment is rehabilitation. This is where the idea of juveniles still being changeable comes in. Some find it hard to believe once a person has become an adult that we can do anything to change their behaviors. Not so for many children. A September 2005 report in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Justice Bulletin reminds criminal justice professionals that children are immature by definition and encouraged us to differentiate between when children are misbehaving and when they are criminal. Many children are left to fend for themselves not only physically but in reference to emotional and mental growth. Many are surrounded by influences that teach them to behave in socially unacceptable ways. Because of this, many end up in front of a judge who is tasked with determining the best way to help this child. Often this help comes in the form of placing them in a program that can teach life skills, help facilitate educational goals and teach them to behave. These teachings are rehabilitation at its best.
So, the question that has to be asked is whether or not confining a child to a public or private run juvenile facility meets the purpose of the punishment society wants to impose and whether or not this type of punishment is in the best interest of the child and society. This is where as criminal justice professionals we have the opportunity to think outside the box. Many alternatives to incarceration exist including utilizing community programs and mediation.
Instead of locking a child up in a facility, whether designed for juveniles or even worst one for adults, many communities offer programs to help keep society safe while encouraging rehabilitation. Examples of these types of programs are supervised release, such as home detention, electronic monitoring, intensive supervision, day and evening reporting centers, skills training programs or residential programs. One downside to these is many rely on a child having natural supports within in the community to be successful. When a child does not have family members that are involved or others, such as mentors or school personnel, often they are not candidates to remain in the community.
One program popular among restorative justice supporters is mediation. Victim-offender mediation programs (VOMP) run on the premise that aside from a crime being committed -a harm was done. The punishment must address this harm attempting to promote healing. In the commission of a criminal act, many parties are harmed, the victim, the victim’s family, the offender’s family, the community and even the offender. In VOMP, an offender must take responsibility for this harm and be willing to heal it in ways that are determined by those affected. For example, a juvenile in Lane County (Oregon) was involved in a situation where he and several others threw flammables into a temple. Inside the temple were Holocaust survivors. The harm created by this crime went beyond the simple criminal law definition. The victims, the offender and the criminal justice system in this case were all willing to utilize VOMP. Within the process, the offender learned about Judaism and listened to the experience of the victims not only of the holocaust but what the offender's crime did to add to their fear and trauma. In the end, the offender grew releasing some of the ignorance and immaturity that contributed to his behavior the day he committed his crime and allowed both the victims and the offender to heal. This could not have been accomplished by simply locking the offender up for a certain amount of time.
Hardened criminals who also happen to be under the age of 18 do exist. Age does not preclude a person from being a violent predator. Fortunately, this is not the case with many juvenile offenders. Many children find themselves in front of a judge over status offenses or for being delinquent. It is for these children, society and the criminal justice system must think beyond retribution and confinement. If not, we are creating a generation of institutionalized adults who have been othered and gained a free education in deviance. Hopefully, we have not lost faith in our children and as a society are still willing to parent them to the best of our ability, including seeking alternative sanctions to the prison industrial complex.