Policy Documents

Abolish the Juvenile Justice System?

Morgan Reynolds –
November 1, 1996

Juvenile crime is a serious problem. The facts are grim: the number of juvenile murderers has tripled to 3,100 since 1984, and 125,000 youths are charged each year with a serious violent crime. One person in five arrested for a violent crime is seventeen years old or less, although kids ages five to seventeen represent only 15.5 percent of the population.

The only good news lately is that the arrest rate for juvenile violent crimes dropped 2.9 percent last year. The bad news, however, is that over the next nine years the population of males ages fourteen to twenty-four will grow by 1.8 million. Judging from the past, the most vicious 7 percent of those will commit most youthful crimes of violence, implying an expansion of 125,000 criminals over the next nine years.

What causes crime? We don't need a lot of sociological mumbo-jumbo to answer this question. The guilty criminal does! He (93 percent of offenders are male) is a free moral agent who, confronted with a choice between right and wrong, chooses to do wrong, even if only for a brief period in his life. He refuses to respect the rights of others to be secure in their lives and possessions.

The causes of our juvenile crime problem are twofold: 1) more youths than ever are effectively growing up as barbarians, failing to adopt the minimum ethics required for peaceful cooperation, and 2) crime "pays" for too many youths--they usually pay a low price even when caught.

The way to solve America's juvenile crime problem is to rebuild internal restraints, decentralize and pare back the welfare state, increase competition and choice in schools, and strengthen the family and private-sector control generally. It would be nice if "prevention" remedies could do the whole job, but expecting that would be naive. As one Texas judge put it, "A half-grow'd rattlesnake is about as dangerous as a full-grow'd one." The price of crime must be raised.

The primary obstacle to such reform is the juvenile justice system. Virtually everyone except those employed in it recognizes its failure. The system is founded on false premises because it intends to shield youths from the consequences of their own actions.

The first juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899. The idea quickly spread across the nation, promoted by the same Progressive movement that earlier had pushed such reforms as rehabilitation, probation, parole, and the indeterminate sentence. Individualized treatment by social workers and other experts devoted to the child's "best interest" became the new elixir.

Besides displacing the guidance of parents, church, and community, such an approach violates the fundamental principles of justice. Youth shouldn't be an excuse. As Judge Ralph Adam Fine of Wisconsin says, "We keep our hands out of a flame because it hurt the very first time (not the second, fifth, or tenth time) we touched fire." Yet the juvenile courts still handle 1.4 million delinquency cases each year, including 100,000 serious violent crimes.

The principles of justice are symbolized by the blindfold, balance scales, and sword of Justitia. One system with equal justice for all--not separate systems for different groups--serves us best. Youth can still serve as a mitigating circumstance in sentencing and separate correctional facilities may continue. But asked whether juveniles convicted of their second or third crimes should be given the same punishment as adults, 83 percent of those surveyed say, "Yes."

Rules operate through the expectations they create. They must be tough, fair and apply to all, free of arbitrariness, privilege, and discrimination. But what do we get from Washington? One year it's midnight basketball, the next it's curfews. All the more reason to rely on a decentralized approach. State and local governments have been toughening their treatment of young criminals. The logical end of these new measures is to abolish the welfare approach to young criminals in favor of justice.


Morgan Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.