The Contradictions of Juvenile Crime and Punishment are Examined by Professor Jeffrey Fagan

The juvenile justice system is burdened with shortcomings and operates amid constant tension with a more-conventional prison and punishment model.

Putting juvenile criminals in prison may make politicians and the police look good, but the get-tough approach is still trumped by a juvenile justice system and philosophy that recognizes the need to treat young offenders differently, according to an article by Columbia Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan.
However, that system is also burdened with shortcomings and operates amid constant tension with a more-conventional prison and punishment model, writes Fagan in the latest issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“We believe deeply in child-saving, yet we are quick to expose violent children to the harshest punishments in service to the same punitive instincts that drive mass incarceration of adults,” Fagan writes.
Fagan, one of the nation’s leading experts on juvenile justice and the effects of imprisonment, notes that while therapy and rehabilitation is an ostensible goal of traditional juvenile facilities, they often fall victim to “cynicism about rehabilitation and institutional self-interest,” along with neglect.
“On the one hand, courts and legislatures want to be tough; on the other hand, there are strong preservationist instincts at play that have muted the growth in incarceration of minors,” Fagan writes. These contradictions have produced juvenile corrections systems that often are as toxic as their adult counterparts.
Fagan said despite the “raw emotional politics” of violent crime, diverting minors from prison invariably becomes the better option, given that for many harsh punishment is neither a “socially productive nor a principled path.” He cites studies that find adolescents who are punished as adults are rearrested and imprisoned “more often, more quickly, and for more serious crimes. In addition, he argues lengthened sentences for juvenile offenders do nothing to lower crime rates.
“Incarceration at a young age not only increases the risk of future incarceration, it mortgages the long-term prospects of young males for marriage, employment, and social stability over a lifetime,” Fagan writes. “Even a short spell in detention adversely influences the outcomes of cases once they get to court, tipping the odds toward harsher punishment instead of diversion or probation.”
Moreover, Fagan writes, youths in prison are less likely to receive education and other essential services, and more likely to be victims of physical violence and have more psychological problems.
“While the law has moved toward increasing the incarceration of younger teens, social and biological evidence suggests moving in the other direction,” Fagan writes.
The latest issue of Daedalus is devoted to the challenges of mass incarceration in the U.S.—which confines 25 percent of the world’s inmates. More than 1.6 million Americans are behind bars in state and federal prisons, the most than at any point in the nation’s history.