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Teenage Wasteland – The Sad State of Juvenile Justice

In popular culture, teens are often comically portrayed as a constantly exasperated group whose motto is “that’s not fair.” This is meant to be funny, since teens are supposed to mature and learn that life, of course, is not fair – and that’s just the way things are.

But certain things in life – like the U.S. criminal justice system – are designed to give all people a fair shot. Unfortunately, according to a recent study published by the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law School, many teens are receiving questionable treatment in criminal court.

The study examined the practices of juvenile criminal courts in 16 Illinois counties and 15 other states, focusing on teens with court-appointed lawyers, reports the Associated Press, and found some alarming trends.

In some courts, all teens are apparently required to wear shackles in the courtroom – no matter the seriousness of their offense. Worse, many teens do not have access to criminal defense attorneys with enough time or experience to adequately prepare their cases, sources say.

The study reportedly found that, as a result of this lawyer deficiency, as many as 70% or more of teenagers take plea bargains instead of standing trial. Reports indicate that, for some, this translates to pleading guilty to more serious charges than necessary, simply to get the process “over with.”

Guilty pleas and convictions can in turn determine whether or not a juvenile is charged as an adult for later offenses as well as length of a prison sentence.

Pantagraph.com reports that, in many cases, the defense attorneys assigned to juvenile cases are young and have little experience. This is especially worrisome because the juvenile criminal justice system requires specialized knowledge and training.

And experts are apparently troubled by the high frequency of plea bargaining, which should not be used as a means of processing a large volume of criminal defense cases, especially when the defendant stands a decent chance of being acquitted at trial.

The authors of the study suggested several measures for improving the juvenile court system, including providing more enthusiastic, available legal counsel for the defendants. And another study done on New York’s juvenile criminal justice system underlined the need for such reforms.

Newsday.com reports that New York’s juveniles convicted of crimes cost the state $150,000 each per year to keep in custody. And a reported 75% of those released from custody reoffend within three years. According to one official, it’s time for change.

An underlying issue in both studies is the effect of the juvenile systems on the kids they’re supposed to serve. In both Illinois and New York, juvenile offenders are subject to a flawed system that often has nothing to do with justice or “fairness.”

One analyst reportedly fears that kids simply lose faith in the criminal justice system when it doesn’t work for them. And those who don’t trust the system often choose to live outside it-as career criminals.


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