Juvenile Criminal: Medical Support or Imprisonment

Mature Enough

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the human brain doesn’t reach its full maturity until the age of 25 years old (Shelat, 2018). If this is true how can a child be tried for a violent crime as an adult? I don’t believe you justifiably can no matter how horrendous. Adults beyond the age of 25 have shown to use their prefrontal brain to process situations which is the good judgment part of the brain that thinks of long-term consequences, whereas teens use the emotional part of the brain known as the amygdala. If a teen reacts off of emotion and spontaneous situations how can they be held accountable for their actions during an intense situation? I support the belief that does to the lack of maturity in the brain cells an adolescent criminal should receive mental support instead of incarceration.

History and Status

According to Laurence Steinberg, distinguished professor of the Temple University, states that only 10 percent of juvenile criminals grow to become adult offenders of the law (Steinberg, 2016). That’s not exactly true, studies show 40 to 60 percent of juvenile delinquents stop committing crimes by early adulthood. Studies also show that juveniles that offend in earlier years are more likely to continue offending versus offenders who begin in their later teen years (Justice, 2014). When juveniles are placed in rehabilitation programs such as “The Big Brother” program they are more likely to receive more age-appropriate structure and guidance that will assist them in forming into functional adults.

Confining juveniles have shown to be more detrimental than beneficial. Research has shown to cause both emotional and psychological damage to adults so why would it help a child? Juveniles are more likely to drop out of school after being incarcerated due to the lack of guidance while imprisoned. They are groomed by discipline, control, and intimidation. Some people feel solitary confinement for an offender is what “time out” is for a child. It is not. Long periods of confinement result in aiding toward behavioral issues and mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, and depression. Better options such as extensive therapy, accountability programs, and education would be more successful than punishments from being tried and convicted as an adult.

Problem One

The problem of juvenile offenders and the corresponding punishment is a controversial one. While there is a law that regulates punishments for teenagers, and those punishments can be lighter compared to adult sentences, the USA remains to be the only country in the world where teenagers can be incarcerated for the rest of their lives (Knafo, 2014). As I have mentioned previously, research indicates that people do not reach full (brain) maturity until they are 25 years old (Shelat, 2018). Nevertheless, teenagers and underage individuals remain to be punished for different crimes (depending on their severity) with little regard to their ability to think clearly about the consequences of their actions. I believe that juvenile offenders should be punished for their crimes, but the punishment they receive should be appropriate to their age. This being said, I find adult sentences and lifelong incarceration fully unacceptable as forms of teenage punishment.

The solution to the problem would be new legislation that prohibits life imprisonment for teenagers who have severely violated the law. Furthermore, imprisonment, in general, might not be a perfect idea if society aims to reduce recidivism. Even if a teenager is responsible for a very serious offense, such as a murder or drug trafficking, he or she should be judged accordingly to his/her age and level of maturity. As teenagers find it difficult to calculate the risk of some actions they take, the court should consider this factor and avoid penalties similar to adult punishments in the future.

The first advantage might not be obvious, as it is believed that incarceration should prevent rather than stimulate recidivism. However, research demonstrates that incarceration is not effective in decreasing recidivism: the majority of those juveniles who “have been in residential correction programs are subsequently rearrested within three years” (Lambie & Randell, 2013, p. 450). If society aims to prevent juvenile offenders from repeating their crimes, then another approach to this goal should be taken. Transferring juveniles to adult courts and giving them corresponding adult sentences can also have an adverse effect, Lambie and Randell found (2013). While some teenagers had claimed that their incarceration with adult offenders had no positive or negative effect on them, others pointed out that they were able to learn more about crime from adult prisoners. Such ability of teenagers to learn from adults would prevent them from being reintegrated into society as responsible and law-abiding individuals. Furthermore, teenagers in prisons tend to contact with other antisocial peers, which can also affect their future behavior and recidivism rates.

A visible disadvantage to this solution is the fact that some juveniles do commit crimes of serious severity. Therefore, incarceration with adults might be more effective if the system aims to cut out the negative effect that teenagers who committed severe crimes (such as rape or murder) can have on other teenagers with less severe sentences but who are incarcerated in the same facility. For example, “juveniles’ greater susceptibility to negative peer influences and inability to escape their criminogenic environments” can result in a situation, where teenagers will share their experience, thus aggravating the issue even more (Feld, 2013, p. 109).

Teenagers who have committed such severe crimes are less likely to influence adults, as the latter are less susceptible to social influences and can have a greater locus of control (although not always). Thus, there is a possibility that teenagers who have committed heavy crimes can if not encourage then at least share their experience with other teenagers, which can cause more harm compared to sentences in an adult facility. However, to prevent such influence and at the same time decrease, the number of youth traumatized by prison sentences, only those teenagers who have committed homicide should be incarcerated with adults. Furthermore, neither juveniles who committed murder nor teenagers who have not should receive lifelong sentences due to societal and biological factors (peer influence and the inability to wage risks and consequences) that affect them (Feld, 2013). The proposed solution will target both groups of juveniles, resolving the disadvantage.

Problem Two

The second advantage is the decrease in victimization. According to Lambie and Randell (2013), both teenagers and adults are often abused in prisons. While male prisoners mostly suffer from physical assaults, female offenders frequently become targets of sexual victimization. The incarceration of juvenile offenders with adults is a big risk also due to adults’ better physical and cognitive development, using which they can physically assault or manipulate teenagers.

An additional problem that is caused by offenders’ underage is the victimization by facility staff. Approximately 43% of incarcerated teenagers were forced into sexual contact with facility staff, Lambie and Randell (2013) report in their study. It appears that by incarcerating juveniles with other juveniles or with adults, we as a society do not only fail to make them responsible citizens but also increase their risk of being maltreated. The problem of sexual harassment is difficult as it is, but with the existing sentences for teenagers, we only ensure that more underage individuals are sexually abused every year.

Still, there is also data that victimization and offending are related. Those who were victimized in childhood or adolescence can become offenders in the future and vice versa (Posick, 2013). In adult facilities, teenagers are indeed more likely to be sexually and physically harassed as they are often less physically developed or strong than adults. However, research shows that peers can also sexually and physically abuse inmates of their age, thus increasing the degree of victimization in those. To decrease or even eradicate the incidence of victimization and offending among juveniles, correctional programs, and other therapies, including psychotherapy and anger management, should be utilized. Psychotherapy can help both bullies and victims of bullies, helping them restore control over their behavior and addressing incidents of violence they experienced, as well as reflect their position in the bully-victim relationship.

As can be seen in Figure 1, more than 65% of incarcerated youth develop one mental health disorder. As the majority of them experience one or more traumatic events, the need for psychotherapy becomes even more prominent because it will be able to target not only those who perpetrate or are exposed to violence but also anyone in need of treatment. Some juveniles are exposed to violence long before they become offenders; in this case, therapeutic work with a social worker, psychologist, or therapist could be even more beneficial, providing them with an ability to work on their traumas and eventually become well-functioning members of society.

Infographics on incarcerated youth.
Figure 1. Infographics on incarcerated youth (Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, n.d.).

Problem Three

The third advantage is the public benefit that a new form of sentence can provide to society. Instead of being imprisoned, teenagers should be educated, do volunteer work, or treated if necessary/applicable. For example, education and volunteer work are beneficial because instead of spending their time in prison without any actual purpose, teenagers will be able to learn new skills that can help them in the future or improve the infrastructure of their communities. It is difficult for society to think critically about juvenile sex offenders as they often receive severe and harsh sentences. Kim, Benekos, and Merlo (2018) found that therapy and treatment are highly effective with sex offenders and can decrease recidivism rates among them by 10%. Whereas high-security level imprisonment is unlikely to reduce recidivism in sex offenders, treatment and therapy provide a chance for these individuals to become law-obedient members of society. This way, teenagers receive a chance of correcting their mistakes and learning from them (Knafo, 2014). Additionally, it is possible that therapeutic work with sex offenders can help psychologists understand what factors make a person become a sex offender and thus develop tools for prevention.

Of course, parents and community members might disagree with this suggestion as not everyone will welcome juvenile offenders as volunteers at their local community. Citizens can also be against the decision to include offenders in the social life of a community due to the severity of the crime they have committed. It is not difficult to understand the anxiety of parents, especially with the high degree of stigma that juvenile offenders have to face. To ensure the safety of citizens and address the stigma surrounding teenagers, it is suggested to design tests that could determine whether a teenager is ready to take part in volunteer work or should undergo therapy or education first.

Therapy could be helpful for their work because research demonstrates that cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness training can improve the attention task performance of juveniles (Leonard et al., 2013). Multisystemic therapy can help decrease peer influence, especially in siblings, thus positively affecting the reintegration of teenagers into the society and ensuring that they are not causing negative influence of community peers or siblings (Wagner, Borduin, Sawyer, & Dopp, 2014). Community members will have little concerns about the safety of their neighborhood, and teenagers will be able to reintegrate while also performing useful and needed work. This solution provides an advantage to all sides, and can also help battle the stigma.

Conclusions

Teenagers should not receive adult sentences, as imprisonment is largely ineffective. Instead, sentences for teenagers should be eliminated or transformed in such a way that they are less harmful and more beneficial to the offender and society. Such changes can cause a decrease in recidivism and victimization since teenagers will not face abuse from peers and adults. They will be engaged in volunteer work or education, which are more effective than incarceration. After incarceration, teenagers are often unable to reintegrate and have to commit crimes again as they do not see any other choice. Therapy and treatment can help them overcome trauma and psychological issues, as well as provide more information about sources of teenage crime to researchers. Juveniles who committed serious crimes can have a negative influence on their peers in an incarceration facility; to overcome this potential disadvantage, it could be suggested to ensure that only those juveniles who have committed homicide should be incarcerated with adults (and lifelong sentences need to be prohibited).

The incidence of victimization and offending in facilities for youth can increase as peer bullying is a common problem among incarcerated teenagers. To address this problem, anger management and therapies should be utilized to decrease the level of violence and help victims and bullies alike understand what can be done about the issue. Fears of community residents might prevent teenagers from fully participating in volunteer work. A test that would assess their readiness for such activities should be designed, and education or therapy can be suggested to those who cannot work as volunteers yet. In my opinion, juvenile offenders should be punished for their crimes, but the punishment they receive should be appropriate to their age. Nevertheless, adult sentences and lifelong incarceration are fully unacceptable as forms of teenage punishment.

References

Chicago Youth Justice Data Project. (n.d.). Incarcerated youth: Some infographics. Web.

Feld, B. C. (2013). The youth discount: Old enough to do the crime, too young to do the time. Ohio St. J. Crim. L., 11, 107-148.

Kim, B., Benekos, P. J., & Merlo, A. V. (2016). Sex offender recidivism revisited: Review of recent meta-analyses on the effects of sex offender treatment. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 17(1), 105-117.

Knafo, S. (2014). Why the U.S. is still the only country where youth are sentenced to die in prison. Web.

Lambie, I., & Randell, I. (2013). The impact of incarceration on juvenile offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(3), 448-459.

Leonard, N. R., Jha, A. P., Casarjian, B., Goolsarran, M., Garcia, C., Cleland, C. M.,… Massey, Z. (2013). Mindfulness training improves attentional task performance in incarcerated youth: A group randomized controlled intervention trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 792-802.

Posick, C. (2013). The overlap between offending and victimization among adolescents: Results from the second international self-report delinquency study. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 29(1), 106-124.

Shelat, D. (2018). Health encyclopedia. Web.

Wagner, D. V., Borduin, C. M., Sawyer, A. M., & Dopp, A. R. (2014). Long-term prevention of criminality in siblings of serious and violent juvenile offenders: A 25-year follow-up to a randomized clinical trial of multisystemic therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(3), 492-499.