Juvenile Justice Systems Throughout The World

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Among the world’s developed countries, the United States is widely considered to be one of, if not the harshest criminal justice system. In America, we find an elevated level of violent crime and more severe punishments than many other countries. It is no secret that incarceration levels are unnecessarily high here as well. This harsh criminal system carries over to our juvenile justice system.

America is the only country in the world that is condemning people below the age of 18 to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, according to a report from the “Sentencing Project”. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has stated that there are over 1 million children behind bars throughout the world. Approximately 2,500 are juveniles serving life sentences. Sadly, all 2,500 were in the United States. In America, these children were locked up and the key was simply thrown away. But, we cannot simply ignore the problems with our juvenile justice system. Learning what other countries are doing successfully and unsuccessfully may allow us to emulate their success here in America. I have studied juvenile justice systems throughout the world now, and the juxtaposition was fascinating, but I learned that the systems are not as much to blame as the cultures that we have created.

To understand how the United States got to this point, I decided to learn more about the history of juvenile justice systems in the world and how our particular system differs from other countries’ systems. Up until relatively recently, children were treated as property and had no legal rights of their own. Then children slowly began to be seen as having their own rights but mostly in the context of having their rights taken away from them for punitive purposes.

For most of history, the courts that dealt with adults also dealt with children. There were no special provisions made for anyone as long as they were above the age of criminal responsibility. That age of criminal responsibility was 7 for English common law, Hindu law, and the Code of Hammurabi. Sadly, there are records of juveniles being executed by hanging, up until approximately 1830. At that time, age was only used as one mitigating factor for a child’s punishments.

Finally, special trials for juveniles first came about in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. However, those trials exclusively involved the property rights of juveniles. From what I have found, the first juvenile courts, as we know them, came about in Chicago, Illinois in the year 1899. These courts became known as ‘children’s courts’. Later, similar family courts expanded to Canada, Great Britain, France, Russia, Poland, and finally Germany by the middle of the 20th century. Most other countries followed suit by the end of the 20th century. By 1989, the United Nations “Convention of Rights of the Child Treaty” was written, clearly stating that children under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to death.

Most countries have adopted the theory that children have rights to procedural safeguards in juvenile courts, just like those countries’ adults. Through In re Gault, a juvenile’s right to be noticed of their charges, to due process, to legal counsel, to witnesses, and to appeal were established. It was a landmark case for America and a huge win for juvenile justice advocates. Prior to that case, there wasn’t really a formal process for juveniles and sometimes they were even sentenced to extensive periods of incarceration.

Although this case improved that, problems were exacerbated between 1980 and 1990 when America began the “tough on crime” policies that took away certain juvenile protections. Some of the most severe juvenile life sentences and even death sentences came after those policies. Juvenile crime rates have slowly decreased since then. However, due to those state laws/policies that were put in place, some juveniles are again being denied their juvenile justice protections. In certain cases, those juveniles are being tried as adults and incarcerated with adults.

Meanwhile, in all the other countries of the world, the “tough on crime” policies were not adopted in that form. This explains the previously stated phenomena that all 2,500 of the juveniles of the world, that are serving life sentences, are in America. In fact, the United States would not ratify the 1989 United Nation’s “Convention on the rights of the Child”. The only other country that refused to sign the treaty was Somalia, which has an atrocious juvenile justice system and is abound with human rights violations. The courts have come a long way in avoiding life sentences for juveniles because they realize that children may have a greater possibility to change.

So, if the United States’ juvenile justice system leaves much to be desired, which countries are actually excelling in this field? Well, according the Child Rights International Network (CRIN), the first ever global study on children’s justice found that Belgium ranks first. After Belgium comes Portugal, Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands. There is a theme in these countries where an even greater focus is put on “the best interests of the child”.

I believe the execution of this theme is at the heart of America’s problem. For example, although America tries to focus on the best interests of the child as well, it feels like there is an underlying feeling that things are simply swept under the rug here, with true rehabilitation as only an afterthought. In contrast, France implements more programs and spends more money per capita, focusing on juvenile’s emotional health as well as their educational health.

Germany puts a heavy emphasis on instructing juveniles by working directly with their family situation to rectify undesirable behavioral patterns. Likewise, China, with its communist background, puts a heavy focus on family correction and even goes so far as to hold schools responsible for juvenile’s behavior.

How countries try juveniles is another factor that widely varies. For example, in the Philippines, which was a colony of the United States until 1946, the United States juvenile court system was adopted but hardly used. Instead, a ‘barangay’ or political region led by an elected captain, handled juvenile issues without any attorneys. Their methods heavily rely on informal mediation. In Brazil, every region has a tribunal that is made up of five officials that were selected by the people. The goal there is to simply correct the situation and reintegrate the juvenile back into society. They recognize that maturity levels are still developing and people as old as 21 could be considered youths. In Egypt, juvenile matters are an issue for the government, and children are not referred to their parents for correction at all. Juveniles under 15 cannot be subject to punishment by the government.

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We have established that there are many differences in each country’s juvenile justice system. But what sets European countries ahead of the other countries? In the case of Switzerland and Germany, they claim that their success in rehabilitation is a result of minimum intervention. They focus on diverting the juvenile away from the offense and towards educational opportunities in the way of learning about their victim or the reparations required since the act. Indeed, Franklin E. Zimring, one of the foremost experts on juvenile justice systems around the world, thinks that the success comes from “Responsibilization”.

In Responsibilization, the juvenile offender’s parents and children are held responsible for their acts. This shifts the parents from being bystanders to their children’s acts to being more instructive in their parental training. I would even argue that if you are liable for the criminal acts of your children, to some extent, you may be more cautious about even having children. And in the event that you do decide to have children, you will be more invested in their training, for them and for yourself as well. In Scandinavian countries, parents can supplement the training that they give to their children with the government’s offer to train children through their welfare agencies. Frequently, parents are training their children and then getting additional help through government assisted training. This proves to be far more effective than just being handed government money. The Scandinavian countries put a heavy focus on restorative justice and restitution over punishment. They use this reparation as their form of rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, the success seen with this does not stretch to the European countries’ areas that have issues with immigrants. In countries where immigrants are present and find difficulty breaking into the labor market and finding jobs, ethnic minorities are having more difficulty believing their socio-economic position can be improved. In these dismal cases, like most places in the world, the juvenile justice system is less likely to be successful in rehabilitation efforts.

From 2002 to 2004, I lived in northern Japan on an island called Hokkaido. I was a minister for the Church of Christ. I also taught English classes to teenagers every week. Over the course of that time, I met hundreds of teenagers, some who had been in the juvenile justice system themselves. I was blown away by the amount of respect they showed me and how polite they were. I also noticed that they were good kids. Somehow, it felt like they had actually been rehabilitated.

Working with these Japanese teenagers, and then coming home to Louisiana teenagers, I realized that either the opportunities for many of the people in Louisiana were not as good, or the way that the Japanese people were handling their juvenile delinquents was more effective. I think that there may be too many interconnected variables to conclusively know what the difference was but since then I have done some research on the Japanese juvenile justice system. I now think that the success of rehabilitation was not due to the system but merely the culture itself.

Like all juvenile justice systems, it is so interconnected with the adult criminal system that they bleed right through. For example, most years Japan has the lowest murder per capita of any developed country in the world. The juvenile murder rate mirrors this statistic. This could be due to the fact that the country has a culture of believing that hurting someone in any way is dishonorable. Above all, the Japanese people value honor. People don’t want to commit a crime in Japan because they do not want to dishonor their families. Even the teenagers I ran into felt deep shame for having brought attention to their families for their misconduct. Japan has low crime, but I do not think it is related to their harsh punishments.

Right now, Japan is going through what America went through in the 90’s. Due to seven (7) high profile teenage murder cases from the Kobe murder in 1997 to the Yokohama murder of 2015, there are proposed legislations to implement stricter and more unforgiving juvenile laws. This mirrors our “tough on crime” policies. It will be very interesting to see if these changes increase or decrease the juvenile crime rates and what other effects there will be on their justice system. I believe that Japan’s juvenile justice success is overwhelming due to their culture, and not their juvenile justice system at all.

But we are taking great steps to fix our juvenile justice system culture in America. Time magazine reported that states like Virginia, Kansas, and Connecticut have closed the least effective youth prison facilities in their states, based on rehabilitation rates. Instead, many states are investing in community-based solutions. Youth prisons often lead to more trauma like physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and isolation. These further complicate issues and have been shown to hurt rehabilitation. Even worse, it is reported that it costs an average of $142,000 per year to incarcerate a juvenile, and 75% of the juvenile offenders re-enter the system within a few years anyway. In comparison, youth advocate programs cost a fraction of that, and have been proven to keep juveniles arrest-free. Those are things that states are doing to help the system rehabilitate juveniles but there are many things we can do before that point.

Although poverty does not necessarily cause violent crime, it can be a factor. Like the immigrants in the European and Scandinavian countries, people here in America who feel like they lack opportunity or feel severe inequality are more likely to commit crimes. This includes juveniles. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and World Bank (UNODC & World Bank, 2007), “evidence suggests that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to engage in delinquent and violent behavior in the future”. So, the problem can become increasingly cyclical. The report also says this increases the chances of juveniles leaving home and joining gangs. The statistics support that in most countries, juvenile delinquency occurs predominantly in a group setting. 2/3rd of juvenile offenses are committed by gangs.

A combination of preventative measure and proper rehabilitation, in conjunction with a healthy societal culture would do more for juvenile delinquency than any system reform. After studying all the countries juvenile justice systems that I could, I realize now that if we have gotten to the point where we are trying to fix detention centers, we have already failed our children. Although each of the countries listed had good and bad aspects, none of them had significant differences that would account for the levels of violent crime and incarceration that we see in America.

I can only conclude that the inequality and despair of the wealth gap here in America is so exaggerated that the lower socioeconomic classes are adversely affected. In no other country in my studies, was there such a glaring problem of poverty mixed with extreme wealth. Overwhelmingly, the juvenile delinquency is occurring in poverty stricken urban areas with fractured families and glim prospects. Violence and crime beget crime. The best thing to do is to teach children by example. If America can actually start to be fair, equal, and give every person the opportunity for the American dream, our children will see that, and I believe that the juvenile crime rate will go down.

I set out to study the juvenile justice systems of the world, in order to improve our own, but I have learned that we can’t just stop there. We must change the inequality in society. We must stop issuing lifelong incarcerations for adults with non-violent crimes. That further fractures families. In some ways, to fix our juvenile justice system, we must go back and fix our criminal system and make families whole again. We also must finally create the fairness and equality that we have been falsely claiming that we have had in society. It is good to try to reform the juvenile justice system, but I feel like if we want our children to treat each other right, we must start treating each other right as a society ourselves. Frederick Douglas said it best when he said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. I agree with this whole heartedly.

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