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Discretion in the Criminal Justice System

      Discretion is arguably the most important tool in a criminal justice professional’s arsenal. Without it, we would be robots. Even the ...

Juvenile Issues In Our Justice System and How To Fix Them

        There’s no group that deserves redemption as much as our youth. If we can save our youth, whether through system reform or policy change, we can shape the entirety of our criminal justice system for future generations. Through understanding how the juvenile’s brain works, we can shape our rehabilitation programs to tailor their needs. They need to be guided through each step of the criminal justice system and monitored closely when they are released. Someone could be assigned to a juvenile, sort of like a case manager, to help them understand every step of the process. Perhaps, if they don’t feel as cornered by the system, their rehabilitation will be a lot easier.

            A juvenile facing a felony conviction would have an ample amount of weight on their shoulders. The system can be daunting, and the juvenile would benefit greatly from being guided through it. In the beginning I would try to be as comforting to the juvenile’s situation as I possibly could. Because the juvenile is facing incarceration time, he would most likely be kept in a juvenile detention facility during the trial process. I would try to be as sensitive to their needs as discretion could allow.

            During the trial, I would work with the juvenile’s representation to help in any area they may need and also engage with their family so that the juvenile hopefully feels less alone while incarcerated. During the trial process, the sentencing can be extremely daunting for the juvenile and if is a lengthy sentence, it would be important to keep them focused on rehabilitating and keeping a positive outlook. Before 2012, children could actually be sentence to life in prison without parole, which is utterly barbaric.

 These children may have committed heinous crimes, but life in prison is an extremely harsh sentence to impose on someone who’s brain has not developed yet. Of course, it’s also unconstitutional, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 2012 with the cases of Jackson v. Hobbs, and Miller v. Alabama. (Sentencing Project) This is important as there is an ample amount of science being published regarding the functionality (or lack thereof) of the teenage brain.

Adolescents are still developing, and since, need to be treated in a different manner than their adult counter-parts. The teenage mind is a complex and often misunderstood thing. It is filled with hormones and most of the time is only focused on getting through adolescence. Neurons are enlarged in the teenage brain to the extent that they are more easily capable of learning new things than adults are. Because of this, the teen brain is also more susceptible to stressors than the adult brain. (Harvard Magazine) When you pair this fact with immaturity and not understanding fully how to deal with those stressors, you can see how teens can be more impulsive, reactionary, and at times, violent than adults. Not all adults know how to manage stress either, but teenagers are notoriously worse at handling stressors.

            Another factor to take into consideration when discussing the teenage brain is the development of the cortex. It’s shown in teenagers to be one of the last parts of the brain to develop, and this is very important as the cortex is sort of the decision maker of the brain. (Chamberlain, 2014) Without a fully developed cortex an individual may be more inclined to act irrationally or make hasty decisions. This could also explain why teenagers do not take their future into as much consideration as their adult counterparts and could be more willing to throw it away on something such as exacting revenge on a bully or having unprotected sex. The instant gratification for teenagers is often more powerful than the careful, deliberate planning and organization one partakes in when thinking about long term goals.

Inside of the cortex lies the right supramarginal gyrus, which would also still be developing in the teenage brain. The right supramarginal gyrus is responsible for empathy in human beings, and an underdeveloped one could be the reason that some teenagers can take a life or multiple lives when the idea sounds so heinous to an adult. (Psychology Today) There are ways to improve your empathy, but most of the ways aren’t going to be favorable for teenagers. Psychology Today describes some of the ways that you can improve your empathy by: meditation, daily exercise, and volunteerism. (Psychology Today) Some teenagers may exercise daily, but that’s a small part of helping the development of empathy. Since the brain is malleable through neuroplasticity, working on meditation and volunteerism could help teenagers exponentially and should possibly be introduced in schools as part of the curriculum. There should also be programs while the individual is in prison to capitalize on these studies.

Another part of the brain developing during adolescents is the cerebellum. The cerebellum does help with understanding the social ques around you as well as other cognitive processes. (Chamberlain, 2014) This means that some teenagers that are inepter than others in social settings may misinterpret something in the conversation and this could lead to embarrassment. This embarrassment coupled with an underdeveloped cortex and right supramarginal gyrus could cause the teenager to explode and do something that is unfavorable to his future. Since the cerebellum is the last part of the brain to mature, care should be taken when dealing with teenagers who are in undesirable social environments. They’re basically a ticking time bomb.

The first step to rehabilitation for our youth is to hopefully prevent them from committing crimes to begin with by increasing our education on the state level. There is a direct correlation between better education and lower crime rates. This is because the better we treat our youth, whether that be through teaching or better programs and technologies, the less deviant they feel and less likely they are to lash out. Our education system in the United States is abysmal. Our teachers are underpaid, our schools are under-staffed, and our children are paying for it. The problem with treating recidivism is that it costs money. That’s why every state needs to follow the few states that have legalized recreational marijuana and put that revenue back into our prevent, rehab, and reform systems. “Total marijuana tax revenues are now expected to climb to $94 million annually by 2016, according to the latest projections. This would equate to a $1 billion-dollar retail market. The revenue figures are high enough that Colorado now finds itself in the enviable situation of having to figure out what to do with all that money. And it's catching the attention of other states, like Vermont, now considering legalization.” Washington Post

A lot can be done with $1 billion dollars, and I would spend a large portion of it on rehabilitation, but it can also go to preventing crimes by better integrating programs into schools and to better fund schools. Elementary schools would receive the most funding, as they can start the earliest with showing children the rights and wrongs of society and how social deviance can lead to a lifetime of wrong decisions and stripped freedoms. There would be a more intensive criminal justice requirement for teenagers to complete, as it is such an integral part of our society, yet most students never complete even one criminal justice class in high school. Students are intelligent enough to grasp concepts dealing with socialism and criminology and we need to trust in their abilities and that education is the correct preventative tool. The funding for rehabilitation and reformation will start with removing mandatory minimum sentences and forgiving most drug related offenses, especially if they were under twenty-five upon arrest. Then we must take the non-violent offenders out of maximum-security prisons and group them with like offenders. The money for rehabilitation will be spent on programs that reduce recidivism and help the juvenile understand why he can’t sell crack-cocaine or black-tar heroin.

            The case manager for each juvenile, or group of juveniles, would also be responsible for ensuring that they receive the programs and attention they need while in prison and upon release. Motivational interviewing would be a great approach as their brains haven’t finished developing and they need to maintain a positive outlook. The funding for this system would come from taxing recreational marijuana, which would also stop teens from ending up in prison for marijuana as well. There are ample people in the field to take on these career roles, and the need for them is high as a lawyer isn’t as personal and is most likely too busy with the case work to help as much as a juvenile case manager can. The days of throwing children into cells and forgetting about them until they are released from prison need to come to an end. 


Works Cited

Bergland, C. (2013, October 10). The Nueroscience of Empathy. Retrieved from Psychology Today:

Campus Safety Staff. (2018, October 15). The K-12 School Shooting Statistics Everyone Should Know . Retrieved from Campus Safety Magazine:

Chamberlain, L. B. (2014). The Amazing Adolescent Brain. I have this on hand if anyone wants it emailed. 

Cline, J. (February, 27 2011). Do Later School Start Times Really Help High School Students? Retrieved from Psychology Today:

Rovner, J. (2018, October 22). Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview. Retrieved from The Sentencing Project:

Ruder, D. B. (2008, September). The Teen Brain. Retrieved from Harvard Magazine:

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