The earliest juvenile court system was based on individualized treatment that aimed to rehabilitate the youthful offender and prevent future recurrences of delinquency. Although the early juvenile system was ineffective and at times, unfair, research to date has shown that the most effective types of treatments are those that focus on the specific risks, needs and capacities of the offender (Mears, 2002). The juvenile justice system has been actively attempting to find a balance between individualized sanctions and treatment and proportionate and consistent sanctions between similar offenders. However, it does not seem likely that the juvenile court system could be developed in a manner that would provide sanctions proportionate to the offense that held consistent across all offenders, while also providing meaningful and effective treatment.
The juvenile justice system has a long history of attempting to provide a rehabilitative service to those juveniles who enter the system. Unfortunately, in the past, the system did so in a manner that did not account for the seriousness of the offense and as a result, sentenced large numbers of juveniles to unnecessary treatments (Mears, 2002). Conversely, as the threat of juvenile crime began to grow and the public demanded harsher sentences for juvenile delinquents, the system abandoned most attempts at rehabilitation and instead focused on sentencing offenders in an efficient method that ensured equal punishments for similar offenses. However, this method was also ineffective at preventing juvenile offending. These past experiences have given rise to several new methods of handling juvenile offenders that attempt to balance the need for treatment with the need to provide consistent and proportionate sanctions (Mears, 2002).
Recently, sentencing guidelines have been created in a number of juvenile court systems that attempt to account for the various, and often conflicting, goals of the juvenile justice system as a method of providing consistent justice. These sentencing guidelines try to balance the differing goals of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation, while also attempting to provide consistent and proportionate sentencing, as well as individualized attention for each offender (Mears, 2002). This is a large goal for any justice system to accomplish and as such provides mixed results.
Creating a juvenile justice system with a system of graduate sanctions coupled with targeted treatment options is a much more focused and plausible alternative to the traditional methods of being either completely rehabilitation-oriented or punishment-oriented (O’Connor & Treat, 1996). With this method, a juvenile offender is made accountable for their actions while also receiving appropriate treatment from their first encounter with the juvenile justice system. How a juvenile is sanctioned is determined based on the nature of the offense and their potential threat to the community. Once an appropriate sanction has been determined, a treatment program is devised in proportion to the amount of help a juvenile requires. Appropriate risk assessment tools are critical to the effectiveness of this type of program and should be used to provide the best treatment for the offender (O’Connor & Treat, 1996).
Developing sentencing guidelines in order to balance the many goals of the juvenile justice system is difficult. The goals are usually conflicting and can lead to disparities in punishment and treatment options between jurisdictions (Mears, 2002). However, sentencing guidelines do offer jurisdictions the ability to personalize the goals of the system based on prevailing community values. Graduate sanctions coupled with treatment options is one method of providing a uniform system of justice based on offense while also providing a reasonable and effective method of treatment (O’Connor & Treat, 1996). Nonetheless, this method relies on adequate risk assessment to place offenders in appropriate treatment facilities and is much less effective if assessment methods are not utilized properly.
Mears, D. (2002). Sentencing guidelines and transformation of juvenile justice in the 21st century. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 18: 6-19.
O’Connor, J. M., and Treat, L. K. (1996). Getting smart about getting tough: juvenile justice and the possibility of progressive reform. American Criminal Law Review, 33: 1299-1344.