Incarceration vs. Rehabilitation Over the past few decades, American juvenile justice policy has become progressively more disciplinary, as shown by the increasing harsh nature of the tempers imposed on juveniles who have been judged delinquent or guilty, as well as by the marked increase in the number of states in which juveniles can be tried During the 1990s, in particular, legislatures across the country enacted statutes under which growing numbers of youths can be prosecuted in criminal courts and sentenced to prison.
Indeed, today, in almost every state juvenile from ages 13 to 14 or less can be tried and punished as adults for a broad range of offenses, including nonviolent crimes. Even within the juvenile system, punishments have grown increasingly severe. It is generally accepted that intense public concern about the threat of youth crime has driven this trend, and that the public supports this legislative inclination toward increased correctiveness. And yet, it is not clear whether this view of the public’s attitude about the appropriate response to juvenile crime is accurate.
On the one hand, various opinion surveys have found public support generally for getting tougher on juvenile crime and punishing youths as harshly as their adult counterparts. At the same time, however, study of the sources of information about public opinion reveals that the view that the public supports adult punishment of juveniles is based largely on either responses to highly publicized crimes such as school shootings or on mass opinion polls that typically ask a few simple questions.
For example, several surveys have found public support for rehabilitation as a goal of juvenile justice policy and also for agreements and programs that are alternatives to prison. One survey found that participants thought that school discipline, rather than imprisonment, was the best way to reduce juvenile crime. It is quite possible that assessments of public emotion about juvenile crime, and the appropriate response to it, vary greatly as a function of when and how public opinion is determined.
An assessment of the public’s support for various responses to juvenile offending is important because policymakers often justify outflows for disciplinary juvenile justice reforms on the basis of popular demand for tougher policies. Disciplinary responses to juvenile crime are far more expensive than less harsh alternatives. Further, there is little evidence that these more corrective policies are more effective in deterring future criminal activity.