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Commentary: America’s Juvenile Justice System Is Appropriately Balanced

A juvenile resident sits in a classroom at the Department of Juvenile Justice's Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, in Atlanta.

A juvenile resident sits in a classroom at the Department of Juvenile Justice's Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)


Connecting state and local government leaders

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom argues “major reforms are not needed" in our approach to charging and convicting juveniles.

This is part of an ongoing series from the National District Attorneys Association highlighting local criminal justice issues. Previous articles can be found here.

HASTINGS, Minn. — The juvenile justice system in America has undergone significant changes since the first juvenile court appeared in Chicago, Illinois in 1899.

Juvenile courts, which spread rapidly across the country, were founded on the ancient legal of doctrine parens patriae (the State as Parent). What was in the “best interests of the child” was the primary focus of juvenile court until major revisions to juvenile codes began to occur across America in the late 1980’s in response to rising juvenile crime and the belief by many that the juvenile court system was too lenient. These code revisions appropriately placed a greater emphasis on protection of public safety and enabled more juveniles to be charged and convicted as adults for violent crimes.

Over the last decade, a number of organizations, including the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice, have called for major reform of America’s juvenile justice system, arguing that it is overly harsh on juvenile offenders and that too many youth are prosecuted in adult court.

Major reforms are not needed, though.

The changes made to most states’ juvenile codes beginning in the late 1980’s were not overly harsh on juvenile offenders. Rather, these laws strike a proper balance between protecting public safety, holding youth appropriately accountable for their crimes and rehabilitating youthful offenders. Juveniles who commit serious and violent crimes, particularly older youth, should in most instances face adult court sanctions.

Contrary to the beliefs of many who are calling for juvenile justice system reform, the vast majority of youthful offenders in America are prosecuted in juvenile court. In Dakota County, Minnesota, for example, we prosecute less than half of one percent of juvenile offenders in adult court.  It is a rare occurrence for a prosecutor to seek to charge a youth as an adult if they have not committed a serious or violent crime. Typically, prosecutors only attempt to charge youth as an adult if they have long criminal histories or have previously been prosecuted as an adult for another offense.

Today’s juvenile justice system recognizes that youth are fundamentally different from adults. We now know that the human brain is not fully developed until the early twenties. When discussing human brain development and competency of juvenile offenders, however, there is an important distinction that must be made--there is a fundamental difference between weighing the risks associated with one’s actions and understanding right from wrong.

A juvenile may well not fully understand the extent of the risks associated with criminal behavior, but the vast majority of teenagers know full well that criminal activity is wrong. Thus, while competency should always be considered in addressing juvenile crime, so too must accountability be properly recognized.

The fundamental difference between juveniles and adults has even been acknowledged by our nation’s highest court in recent years. Roper v. Simmons in 2005 eliminated the death penalty for juveniles. Graham v. Florida that same year prohibited life without parole (LWOP) in non-homicide juvenile cases. Miller v. Alabama in 2012 prohibited mandatory LWOP for juveniles convicted as adults for murder and any other crimes where such a penalty is applicable without a judicial finding that the juvenile is permanently “incorrigible” or “irretrievably depraved.” Finally, Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016 held that the Miller decision applies retroactively, requiring the resentencing of any juvenile who previously received a mandatory LWOP sentence.

The National District Attorneys Association supports a balanced approach to juvenile justice which properly takes into consideration all relevant factors in deciding what criminal charge should be filed against a juvenile offender. It also endorses “blended sentencing” models, which currently exist in 26 states and represent a combination of both juvenile and adult criminal sanctions for serious, violent or habitual juvenile offenders whose crimes have been determined by either a prosecutor or a judge to not warrant immediate prosecution in adult court.

Prosecutors understand that rehabilitation of juvenile offenders remains an appropriate and important goal of the juvenile justice system, and we work hard to insure that this occurs for the vast majority of juvenile offenders. In fact, many prosecutors have initiated diversion programs providing alternative sanctions and accountability outside of the court process for many low-level first time juvenile offenders. Prosecutors across the country have also established crime prevention programs, including efforts aimed at preventing truancy, bullying and the use of drugs or alcohol by youth.

Prosecutors and judges thoughtfully and professionally enforce juvenile codes with fairness and impartiality every day.

We weigh mitigating factors, such as a juvenile offender’s age and maturity, as well as amenability to treatment and probation in the decision-making process at every stage of the handling of a juvenile crime. We also weigh whether juvenile offenders should face adult court sanctions for their actions due to aggravating factors, such as the severity of the crime, the threat to public safety, the impact upon the victims and the offender’s criminal history.

These factors are properly weighed in the decision-making process each and every day by prosecutors and judges throughout our nation and as a result, America’s system of juvenile justice today is appropriately balanced.

James C. Backstrom is the Dakota County attorney in Hastings, Minnesota.  He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National District Attorneys Association and chaired that Association’s Juvenile Justice and Family Law Committee for 13 years.

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