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.