The Perceptions On Juvenile Crimes And Punishment Among The General Public


In 1998, juvenile offenders were responsible for 29% of criminal arrests in the United States and are among the fastest growing groups of offenders. The purpose of this paper is to examine the different perceptions of juvenile crimes and punishment among the general public. Perceptions have been evaluated based on the age, gender, race/ethnicity, and political affiliation of each respondent. Data was gathered with the use of a questionnaire given to 100 randomly selected people in the Western Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia area. After reviewing scholarly sources, several hypotheses were created to be compared to the results of the data collected. This paper focuses on four main categories: juveniles and life imprisonment, juveniles and politics, juveniles and family, and juveniles and treatment.

Regarding juvenile punishment, the public opinion has often wavered between two stern positions. Some believe that the punitive approach to punishment is the most effective in both preventing and rehabilitating juveniles, while others presume that a more benign approach that involves compassion and altruism will better restore juveniles. The paradigm is continuing to shift from fence to fence without committing to what truly benefits society. The public must be educated about juvenile crimes and punishment, so that they may influence policy changes to better the treatment and rehabilitation of juveniles.


In the early 20th century, the foundation of juvenile courts was completed. The public believed that juveniles did not deserve the punishments that adults were given in the normal criminal justice system. For nearly a century, there was a consensus concerning juvenile punishment. Near the start of the 21st century, the public believed that there was an increase in juvenile crimes, as well as the belief that the current juvenile court system was ineffective in rehabilitating juveniles. This was also exasperated by the media as it began to demonize juveniles as “superpredators,” which led to more punitive policies regarding juveniles. Politicians enact legislation that the public views as important to better cement the chance of reelection. As stated by Green and Evelo (2013), the public opinion shifted from a rehabilitative belief to punitive. Juveniles were subjected to more severe punishment due to these policy changes, which resulted in life imprisonment without parole for nearly 2,500 juveniles and thousands more receiving near identical sentences, such as consecutive life sentences.

Juveniles and Politics

Carmichael and Burgos (2012) also delved more deeply into the political aspect of juvenile punishment in their study. The results from the 28 states studied claim that in states where the Republican Party reigns supreme over the Democratic Party, there are more juveniles who are subjected to life imprisonment when compared to Democratic states. If black Americans attribute to a large amount of the overall population, the state will then have a greater number of offenders who are serving life imprisonment for offenses committed when they were juveniles. Overall, the study alleges that as political alignment sways towards the Republican Party, the response to juvenile crime is much more punitive.

Feld (2003) discussed the history of politics and juvenile punishment and believes that it is not proportionate when affecting minorities. From 1985 to 1995, the amount of juveniles behind bars had increased 40%. This large increase was followed by a 7% decrease of white juveniles in custody. This statistic is disproportionate when compared to how minority juveniles were affected over this decade. The number of black juveniles in custody increased by nearly 63%, and the proportion of Hispanic juveniles in custody grew by 8%, from 13% to 21%.

Juveniles and Family

In 1969, Travis Hirschi introduced the Social Bond Theory. From his theory, he found that delinquency is negatively related to the degree of attachment with family members. According to Gove and Crutchfield, “the evidence that the family plays a critical role in juvenile delinquency is one of the strongest and most frequently replicated findings among studies of deviance” (1982). They also include that a very consistent finding is that broken homes, homes with a single parent, are associated with higher rates of delinquency than intact homes, those with both parents. Many literatures indicated that multiple different variables, such as one-parent homes, poor marriages, lack of parental control, ineffective parental behavior, association with negative and positive peer groups, and poor parent-child bonds are consistently associated with delinquency.

In Gove and Crutchfield’s study (1982), 50% of the families in the sample were black and the other 50% were white. Out of these families, 63% of the intact families were white, whereas 78% of the broken and single-parent families were black. The single-parent families were usually of lower socioeconomic status than the intact families, and they were also more likely to be delinquent.

Gove and Crutchfield conducted a study in 1982 with 331 boys and 289 girls. They found that the effects of family relationships had a greater effect on girls than for boys in terms of delinquency. They presented their data twice; the first time, the independent variables are presented with all the variables entered simultaneously, while the second time, they are presented after the parents’ feelings toward their children are added to the analysis. By analyzing in this manner, and by keeping the relationship with parents in a separate analysis, it shows whether relationships have an actual effect on the children. After analyzing both sets of data, Gove and Crutchfield found that white boys are 19% more likely to misbehave than black boys, and after controlling for the parent-child relationships. They also found that 20% of children are more likely to be deviant if they are from a single-parent home as opposed to an intact home. This percentage goes down to 18% after adding the parent-child relationship. Gove and Crutchfield (1982) also found that physical punishment for both boys and girls had a strong relationship with delinquency, and it was not affected by the parents’ feelings toward their children.

Gove and Crutchfield (1982) observed that good marital interaction was unrelated to misbehavior or children, whereas poor marital interaction had a strong relationship with child misbehavior. They also found that in single parent homes, fathers who have nervous breakdowns tend to present themselves as a negative role model thus increasing the likelihood of boys being delinquent by 8%. When mothers have nervous breakdowns, the likelihood of delinquency decreases by 15% because it gives the boys a position of responsibility. Overall, Gove and Crutchfield (1982) found that families play critical roles in the way their children behave.

Kennedy, Edmonds, Millen, and Detullio (2018) conducted a study to better understand the risk factors associating with juvenile recidivism. They found that “juveniles who had family members with a criminal history were found to commit more offenses”. They believed that this was because their family members were modeling negative behaviors, thus transferring them onto the juveniles. Along with that, the same risk factors are likely to apply to both the family members and the children.

Juveniles and Life Imprisonment

Green and Evelo (2013) conducted a study to better understand the public perception on juvenile punishment in relation to life imprisonment. This study was related to the age of the offender and crime committed. The participants were to decide if the punishment of life imprisonment was an appropriate punishment (Green & Evelo, 2013).

There was a total of 317 persons in the study, with 168 of them being students, and the other 149 being community members. The total median age of the entire group was 31 years old. At 74%, a large chunk of the student population was female, which caused a disparity between sexes. 65% of participants were female and 35% were male. Most participants were white, 79%, with other ethnicities completing the remaining 21%. Green and Evelo’s (2013) study had a variety of participants with various political backgrounds. A moderate political alignment was the most popular at 47%, while the “very liberal” and “very conservative” positions were the lowest at 9% respectively.

Before adjusting the data to remove responses that involved “LWOP Never Appropriate” and “LWOP-Appropriate-Only-for-Adults', 53% of respondents believed that life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) was an appropriate punishment for juveniles, aged 10-17, who murdered a stranger. Less serious crimes such as car theft and burglary are supported with 21% and 24%. The respondents were less punitive regarding a juvenile murdering an abusive parent. Only 25% believed that LWOP was an appropriate punishment. The other crimes with relevant percentages are as follows: Sexual assault (44%), Armed robbery of a person (31%), Assault resulting in injury (26%), and Drug sale (24%).

Green and Evelo (2013) believe that studies such as these should be investigated further. Research has shown that juveniles lack the understanding of their actions when compared to adults. Carmichael and Burgos (2012) discussed the possibility of political alignment having a substantial role in juvenile punishment. Juvenile sentences of life imprisonment data were collected from 28 different states. With their results, they were able to conclude that political alignment plays a very important role when analyzing life sentences. A state with a stronger Republican Party as well as many republican citizens has more punitive sentences and penalties. States that were under more Democratic control had fewer juveniles who were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Juveniles and Treatment

In a study conducted by Wong, Bouchard, Gushue, and Lee (2018), they found that many people did not support the use of halfway houses for offenders. Halfway houses seek to prevent or reduce recidivism, and they do so by targeting improvements in participants’ prosocial behavior and positive social adjustment. In their study, they found that halfway houses are beneficial because they reduce prison overcrowding, which is very costly. Halfway houses are criticized for their possible opposite effect. People believe that rather than keeping delinquents and criminals from reoffending, they might increase the chances of recidivism. Along with that, Wong et al. (2018) found that many people feel that halfway houses or any other residential treatment facilities are “too soft on crime” and that they are “an easy way out.” Lastly, halfway houses are seen as a risk to public safety.

In their study, Wong et al. (2018) found that offender participation in halfway houses are linked to a reduced likelihood of recidivism at a 1.27 odds ratio. Based on their analysis, they found that halfway houses are effective in reducing recidivism, and that inmates who were placed in halfway houses were significantly less likely to recidivate in comparison to their counterparts. Overall, Wong et al. (2018) found that halfway houses are neither an “easy way out” nor a risk to public safety, but rather an effective reentry strategy.

Perlin and Lynch (2018) argued in their study that the juvenile justice system, along with the adult system, shames and humiliates those who are put before its sword. Their belief is founded on the public nature of trials, and that humans are then rejected by their peers due to this humiliation. Juveniles are still undergoing development, so the courts will affect them more seriously due to their developing brains. The nature of having a juvenile shackled and brought to the court in front of their family and peers will no doubt do irrevocable damage to the juvenile’s psyche.

A study was done that examined how juvenile justice is handled in both Scotland and Jamaica. Both countries share a considerable amount of values with the United States, but they approach the justice system differently. Hearings involving juveniles in Scotland are handled very differently when compared to adults. Scotland hopes to use the community as a tool in reforming children into productive members of society. Instead of the child being reprimanded by a court, volunteers create a citizen's panel, and together, they decide what the best course of action should be. Instead of purely focusing on the punitive measures for the child’s actions, the decisions are based on what will better the child overall.

While the United States can learn about the courts from Scotland, Jamaica is a superior model on juvenile correction facilities. Jamaica and Scotland are similar with their approach on how the juvenile system should be used. Both countries believe that the welfare of the child is the most important goal. Minimum-security correctional facilities in Jamaica treat their juveniles like students and not delinquents. These facilities allow the juveniles to participate in classes and better hone their skills in activities that they excel in. Most importantly, the children are directly involved in the community, often attending events throughout their local areas. Jamaica’s goal with juvenile corrections is to show these children that they have a place in their community, and that their past is behind them.

A study was conducted by Garland, Melton, and Hass (2012) to understand the public opinions on juvenile blended sentencing. Juvenile blending statutes enable juvenile courts to impose sanctions in the adult correctional system without being processed by the adult courts. Sources reveal that the juvenile blending can cause negative impacts on criminal behavior as they increase recidivism rates. The study conducted showed that the majority of the public favored the juvenile justice system because of its “child-saving capacity.” The researchers believed that due to the lack of knowledge of the juvenile justice system, many people were opposed to blending.


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  11. Perlin, M. L., & Lynch, A. J. (2018). “She’s nobody’s child/the law can’t touch her at all”: Seeking to bring dignity to legal proceedings involving juveniles. Family Court Review, 56(1), 79–99.
  12. Wong, J. S., Bouchard, J., Gushue, K., & Lee, C. (2018). Halfway out: An examination of the effects of halfway houses on criminal recidivism. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 63(7), 1018-1037.
14 May 2021
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