Part A-Critical Issues
The modern American juvenile justice system began in Illinois in 1899 with the creation of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act which served as a prototype for the rest of the states, with all but three adopting similar acts by 1920 (Johnson, 2006, p. 1069). The original doctrine governing the juvenile system was parens patriae that granted juvenile courts broad powers to make decisions regarding juvenile delinquents toward the goal of administering “personalized justice” to achieve rehabilitation (Johnson, 2006, p. 1069). Accordingly, the juvenile system was created to provide limited jurisdiction, informal proceedings, focus upon offenders and not their crimes, indeterminate sentences, and confidentiality-all designed to protect the juvenile from a lifetime of being labeled as a delinquent after being successfully rehabilitated (Champion, 2010, p. 4). This system has undergone a series of changes beginning in the mid-1960s with the recognition of juvenile due process rights in In re Gault , 387 U.S. 1 (1967), and toward a more retributive and punitive system that is similar to the adult system today.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was enacted in 1974 and reauthorized in 2002 and 2008 with the express purpose of creating standards to safeguard youth in the juvenile and adult criminal courts for care, custody, and to ensure public safety (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 2; Champion, 2010, p. 3). Administered by the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the JJDPA mandates that status offenders cannot be held in secure confinement; that juveniles may not be held in secure lockups or adult jails for more than six hours; that securely-detained youth must be “sight and sound” separated from incarcerated adults; and that states must address the preexisting disproportionality of incarcerated minority youth (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 2). Status offenses are those acts committed by juveniles which would bring the juvenile in contact with the justice system and which would not be crimes if committed by adults such as truancy and curfew violations, for example (Champion, 2010, p. 11). In Rhode Island, the JJDPA is administered by the Rhode Island Justice Commission (RIJC).
Generally, when compared to other states, Rhode Island does attempt to adhere to the fundamental tenets of the juvenile justice system and recognizes a number of critical trends which require enhanced attention, to be discussed below.
Improving Cultural Competence
There is considerable disparity in the juvenile justice system-not unlike in the adult system-in which racial and ethnic bias leads to overrepresentation of minorities at every stage of the game. Black youth in the US receive harsher treatment than White youth for similar offenses and these disadvantages have been shown to be cumulative (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 7). For example, whereas Black youth comprised 16 percent of the US youth population between 2002 and 2004 they comprised 28 percent of juvenile arrests, 30 percent of adjudicated juveniles, 35 percent of youth waived to adult court, and 58 percent of youth who were incarcerated in adult prisons (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 7). In Rhode Island, specifically, Black youth comprise eight percent of the state’s minor population but 27 percent of those youth who were housed in the Rhode Island Training School in 2008 (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 7). Similarly, Hispanic youth are disproportionately overrepresented at 18 percent of the state’s juvenile population yet 31 percent of those who passed through the Training School that same year (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 7).
Consequently, it is critical to improve cultural competency within juvenile justice systems, not only in Rhode Island but across the US. Cultural competency is “based on respect for and understanding of cultural differences between different groups” particularly when youth and service providers hail from vastly different backgrounds (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 7). Understanding personal biases and stereotypes, specialized cultural needs, and other pertinent issues and how they affect different groups is essential to identifying need and providing high-quality services to achieve the desired ends.
The Female Offender
One frequently-overlooked subpopulation in the juvenile justice system is the female offender. Girls in the system have different personal histories, offense histories, and needs such as a reduced propensity for violent offenses and an increased potential for status offenses and property crimes (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 6). Additionally, social expectations for girls are different from boys with the former expected to behave “obediently, modestly, and cautiously” which results in “structural gender discrimination” when such norms are disobeyed (Sherman, 2012, p. 1586).
Further, young females in the juvenile justice system have a disproportionate history of physical and sexual abuse which increases their risk for self-harming behaviors, long-term mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations and/or attempts, thus necessitating gender-specific specialized services (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 6; Sherman, 2012, p. 1587). Compounding the problem is the lack of protective factors in female offenders which preclude trauma resolution (Springer & Roberts, 2011, p. 12). It is not enough to take existing programs for boys and simply substitute the word “girl”: there must be an overhaul of these programs to specifically address girls’ unique needs, particularly with evidence demonstrating that the negative impact of female offending typically extends far beyond the immediate consequences and oftentimes throughout these females’ adult lives such as through abusive dating relationships, promiscuity and unplanned pregnancies, substance abuse, high school dropout rates, and mental illness like depression (Cauffman, 2008, pp. 124-5).
Community-Based Alternatives to Incarceration
The increased push toward restorative justice is a cornerstone of the juvenile justice system because of the malleability of juvenile offenders and the reduced recidivism rate achieved by following the tenets of restorative justice: increasing juveniles’ accountability, considering the victims, making reparations, and healing the community. Techniques and strategies for improving outcomes include early identification and timely interventions, intensive family therapy, and strengthening the relationship between families and communities toward the shared goal of resolving delinquency (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 8).
In Rhode Island, because approximately 25 percent of all youth who have had contact with the juvenile justice system in the state return multiple times to family court and the Training School it is critical to take heed of success stories in other jurisdictions in order to reformulate programs to achieve the desired ends (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 8). To address this, the state’s family court has increased its use of diversion to truancy or drug courts. In 2008, 22 percent of all family court juvenile delinquency cases were diverted instead of proceeding to formal court (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 8).
Further, Rhode Island has established Juvenile Hearing Boards to deal exclusively with status offenders in order to reduce the juvenile court docket and to reduce the potential issues which can arise with formal adjudication processes (DSG, n.d., p. 2-3). This push toward deinstitutionalization of status offenses (DSO) has gained considerable support across the country and has been widely cited as having a positive impact upon long-term juvenile outcomes such as reduced recidivism; however, there is also evidence of net-widening which can also present negative outcomes.
Juvenile Transfer to Adult Court and Life Without Parole
An increasingly-salient issue in the literature is the increasing number of juveniles waived to adult court and tried and sentenced as adults. There is ample empirical evidence that juveniles who are tried in the adult criminal court system are more likely to reoffend and become more violent in subsequent deviance than their juvenile-system-tried peers (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 10). Generally, the prosecutor has discretion as to whether to try the juvenile as an adult depending upon the age, state, and heinousness of crime. In Rhode Island, waivers are mandatory for juveniles age 17 or older who are charged with murder, first-degree sexual assault, or assault with intent to commit murder (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 10). Further, family court has the power to “certify” juveniles which permits the court to sentence the juvenile beyond age 19 “if there is otherwise and insufficient period time in which to accomplish rehabilitation”; at which time these offenders can be transferred to an adult facility where the court deems such action to be appropriate (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 10). The number of juvenile transfers has been steadily decreasing within the state over the past six years.
Proponents of juvenile transfers to adult court cite the particularly heinous nature of those offenses for which juveniles are being transferred and the assertion that 16- and 17-year-olds are old enough to “know better”, thus justifying the harsher treatment. However, the US Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005), in invalidating the juvenile death penalty cited functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) scans that the adult brain is not fully formed until one reaches his/her mid-20s with the frontal lobe and executive functions being the last to develop; thus demonstrating that juveniles and adolescents really do not know better (Springer & Roberts, 2011, p. 11). If they are biologically incapable of rational thinking, controlling impulses, and weighing short- and long-term goals then they should not be subjected to the same treatment and punishments as adults. Further, the decision in Roper has not addressed the increasing number of-and unconstitutionality of-juvenile life without parole which remains a critical issue for contemporary study.
Juvenile Competency Statuses
The aforementioned push to firmly establish juvenile due process rights and procedural safeguards have served not to protect youthful offenders but to subject them to a harsher and more punitive system, which began a rapid increase during the rising juvenile crime rates in 1995 (Johnson, 2006, p. 1072). Despite a steadily-declining juvenile crime rate since, adjudication and incarceration continues to increase, thus abandoning the very foundations upon which the juvenile system was based. Of particular emerging concern is the comparison between juveniles’ and adults’ right to be found competent before proceeding through the criminal process as was defined in Dusky v. United States , 362 U.S. 402 (1960) (Johnson, 2006, p. 1072). Where In re Gault established certain due process safeguards such as the right to notice, to counsel to confrontation, to appellate review, to receive a transcript of the proceedings, and against self-incrimination, the case failed to address the juvenile’s right to be found competent prior to adjudication (Johnson, 2006, p. 1075).
Consequently, whereas adults have this safeguard, juveniles do not; nor do courts have any framework with which to make a juvenile competency determination. Because of the increased fragility of juveniles, the increasingly-punitive juvenile system has created generations of juvenile offenders who would fail competency hearings if they were adults. In Indiana, the state Supreme Court “granted juveniles the right to be found competent before a criminal delinquency proceeding” (Johnson, 2006, p. 1077). It is imperative that other states follow suit because of the vast cognitive and psychological differences between juveniles and adults and that one of the key tenets of criminal punishment is that the defendant knows for what s/he is being punished. Juveniles’ limited psychosocial maturity equates to limited blameworthiness and, thus, incompetence to stand trial, to assist in their own defense, and to understand the nature and potential consequences of the charges against them (Springer & Roberts, 2011, p. 11).
Unlike other states, Rhode Island has one unified court system operated at the state level through which all juvenile and adult cases flow, thus reducing potential disparities among county and municipal jurisdictions and attempting to standardize and streamline the process, while reducing service fragmentation (DSG, n.d., p. 2-2, 2-5). Accordingly, Rhode Island has a comprehensive juvenile justice policy in place that outlines the aforementioned concepts and stresses three primary obligations: “to identify and respond to the needs of juveniles in their care; to protect youth from legal jeopardy; and to maintain public safety” (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 1). The state maintains that alternatives to straight incarceration have demonstrated greater success, lowered recidivism, and increased cost-effectiveness; with community-based, sustained, intensive, and family-oriented programs that are individualized to each juvenile’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses being the most efficacious (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 1).
The state also has a single juvenile detention facility. Operated by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), the Rhode Island Training School for Youth houses those juveniles who have been adjudicated and sentenced to secure detention. Throughout 2008, a total of 1,084 youth (81 percent male and 19 percent female) were housed at the DCYF (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 4). To ensure that community-based alternatives are most effectively utilized, the state’s General Assembly capped the number of juveniles who can be detained at the Training School at 148 males and 12 females and required the state to create risk assessment instruments to take advantage of alternative sentencing programs (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 5).
Of particular interest is that the Annie E. Casey Foundation has approved Rhode Island’s efforts to become a Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) site which is charged with reforming efforts geared toward eradicating inappropriate and unnecessary juvenile detentions, reducing recidivism, decreasing the number of youth who fail to appear in court, redirecting public funding toward more effective strategies, and addressing disparities of minority contact with the juvenile justice system (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 9). Core stakeholders in the state include Rhode Island Kids Count, the Rhode Island Justice Commission, public defenders, the Attorney General’s office, family curt, law enforcement, community-based service providers, youth development organizations, and the Department of Children, Youth and Families (Rhode Island, 2009, p. 9).
Despite the seemingly positive view this author has of the Rhode Island system the state has made some bad decisions. Recently, Rhode Island legislators passed a law in June 2007 that required that 17-year-olds be tried as adults regardless of the crime in the hope that the reduced cost of providing for adult prisoners would save the state approximately $3.6 million (Tucker, 2007). This law demonstrates considerable short-sightedness with alleged monetary savings being the deciding factor to enact potentially-harmful legislation. The increased costs of incarcerating juveniles as juveniles includes the costs of rehabilitative services the juvenile would not be receiving in adult facilities; not to mention the potential long-term increased recidivism rate costs due to treating juveniles as adults.
Accordingly, whereas Rhode Island seems to have a decent understanding of the necessary components of a successful criminal justice system and takes into specific consideration the aforementioned trends and special topics there remains room for improvement. The fundamental issues between those who assert that the juvenile justice system serves a specific purpose that should not be usurped and those who cite the heinousness of some juvenile-perpetrated crimes is culpability; however, the evidence demonstrates that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and in order to ensure that these youth do not become more deviant they must be adjudicated within the juvenile system, not the adult one. Rhode Island-despite the aforementioned law that should be repealed-is making strides in the right direction.