Juvenile Delinquency in the States
Presently, juvenile justice is widely acknowledged as being in a state of flux in the United States. The early 1990s saw the most substantial rise in violent crime committed by juveniles ever experienced in this country. On the heels of decades of skepticism about the effectiveness of parens patriae (the state as parent), this rise was the "proof" for many "experts" who believe that the juvenile justice system should be abolished. These skeptics reason that one criminal court could still have some latitude when sentencing younger offenders, but that kids are now committing adult crimes, so it is time to treat them as adults.
Fortunately, this is not the prevailing view. While it is a force in the field, many more "experts" think the juvenile justice system simply needs renovations. Different states treat offenders differently, and some states are role models in the way their juvenile justice systems are managed and executed. Generally, state juvenile delinquency prevention systems were overhauled as a result of the high crime rates in the early 1990s. For my political science Senior Seminar research project, I wanted to look at what factors affected state delinquency rates. I was looking for what effects the reforming (or lack thereof) of these systems has had on the crime committed by juveniles in the states.
Working for the Washington, D.C. Public Defender’s Office in the fall of 1995, I witnessed first hand the inadequacies of our legal system with respect to juvenile offenders. I believe that juvenile justice is a worthwhile topic because of its relevance to every member of American society. If we do not help children in trouble today, they will not have the capacity to be functional members of society tomorrow. Having taken a sociology special topic course on juvenile delinquency and completed a research paper in that course, I felt confident in my ability to locate and analyze contributing factors on the state level. What I did not anticipate, and in hindsight, I believe I could not have anticipated, was the difficulty I encountered in obtaining juvenile justice statistics on the state level. My first juvenile justice paper was a descriptive one; that was, it was subjective and opinionated. Political Science 402 required a more objective approach backed by empirical data.
Researching juvenile justice is difficult for a number of reasons. First and foremost, juvenile court records are sealed. While this did not present a direct imposition on my research, agencies that compile juvenile justice statistics have a difficult task in obtaining data comparable to that which is available on adult criminal justice. Juveniles only become truly media-accessible when they are transferred to adult criminal court, which may be why we hear so much about the rise in violent juvenile crime today. Generally speaking, the American public does not take an interest in crime until it becomes a viable threat....