The juvenile justice system has long been in debate over whether its focus should be rehabilitation or punishment. From its birth in the early 20th century, the juvenile justice system has changed its focus from punishment to rehabilitation and back many times. Some say the juvenile justice system should be abolished and juveniles tried as adults, yet studies indicate punishment and imprisonment do not rehabilitate juvenile offenders; therefore, the juvenile justice system should remain intact and rehabilitation should be the major focus.The juvenile justice system should adopt a permanent focus on rehabilitation to ensure the future success of our nation’s young people.

Juvenile criminal and delinquent behaviors do not emerge randomly. We have learned over the past few decades that a number of factors, (individual, family, peer, and community) affect whether a child will engage in delinquent or criminal activity. Research has clearly shown that the more risk factors experienced by youth, the greater their likelihood of involvement in criminal activity. Conversely, protective factors such as developing close relationships with parents and teachers can offset the negative effects of risk factors. [ (U.

S. Department of Justice Programs Office of Justice Programs, 1999) ]While rehabilitation does focus on juveniles after criminal activity, it is the only sure way for juvenile offenders to develop the ever so important close relationships with parents, teachers and community. Rehabilitation should not only focus on substances abuse and aggressiveness, it should focus on the root of the substance abuse and aggressiveness. All juvenile delinquent behaviors are influenced not only by what goes on in the environment in which juveniles live, but also by what they observe in adults, what they listen to, learn from peer groups, parents, relatives, and society at large.

Juvenile delinquency is not an inherent human condition, but rather is learned through association, imitation, observation, pressure, needs, wants, influence and desires. [ (Wichliffe, 2000) ] Rehabilitation of juveniles can retrain and heal aberrant young minds; give them an opportunity to learn through positive association, imitation, observation, and influence. It can correct the patterns that created the delinquent behavior and instill self-esteem, healthy morals and positive dreams for the future. Rehabilitation is the only way to return a healthy, predictive and socially adjusted juvenile back into the community.While punishment is an important aspect of the juvenile justice system, as it provides justice for victims, it alone cannot provide juveniles with the skills to develop into healthy, community worthy adults.

Incarceration not only fails to address the underlying issues that cased the delinquent behaviors, it also creates a foundation for further criminal activity. Recent studies indicate that after juveniles are imprisoned they are labeled as defective, or damaged and successful reintegration is compromised. Noe states in her 2010 paper presented at the 2010 ASC Annual Meeting, “It is necessary to consider the effect which being imprisoned may have on a juvenile offender. The present study applies labeling theory’s secondary deviance amplification hypothesis to the study of juvenile delinquency.This hypothesis suggests that experiencing an official sanction (incarceration) increases the negative label attached to the youth, causing problems with reintegration after release and reinforcing the youth’s dedication to future deviance.” In an 18-month study of juvenile offenders in the New Your Court System, 360 released from incarceration and 338 that completed community-based punishments, a positive relationship between incarceration and re-arrest could be established.

These findings suggest that rehabilitation provides juveniles with a stronger foundation for successful reintegration.For rehabilitation to be the primary focus of the juvenile justice system and become a truly effective effort, all areas of the juvenile justice system will be affected and will need to adjust to and fully adopt the rehabilitation focus. For law enforcement this means patrolling, controlling, detaining and preventing in a manner that supports the juvenile justice system’s focus on rehabilitation. Law enforcement currently has programs in place that employ and train juvenile officers in patrolling juvenile area, detaining juveniles, investigating juvenile crimes and preventing juvenile criminal behaviors.

These officers focus on patrolling areas of the community where juveniles hang out, such as strips, malls and parks. The officers look for juveniles displaying gang affiliation and arrest warrants while providing community policing and acting and a visual deterrent. Juvenile police officers can be posted at schools to offer control and guidance among the student body. If an officer should need to detain a juvenile, the offender’s age, previous criminal history and family situation will be considered.

Hess and Orthmann in “Introduction to Law enforcement and Criminal Justice” state the juvenile officer must decide if the juvenile should be referred to another agency, a social worker or to family court”.Juvenile officers will continue to be trained to use discretion when deciding the processing agency. After a juvenile is detained the officer will proceed with an investigation that adheres to the departments regulations and guidelines. Officers also have an important role in outreach programs to help prevent crime. For example, officers may go to schools to speak about how to avoid drug use and staying out of gangs.

They also administer volunteer programs to get juveniles involved in their communities. The International Association of Police Chiefs notes that these programs can include recreational activities, internships and law enforcement scout explorer groups.The court process, probation and corrections will be affected as the need for alternative punishments will be necessary, however the main purpose will remain the same with a system wide focus on rehabilitation. A specialized juvenile court is best suited for deciding the fate and needs of juvenile offenders. The court will need to provide a sanction for the rehabilitation programs that best address the juvenile’s issues in lieu of or in tandem with the punishment that matches the crime. Juvenile probation will require ramping up as the case load will drastically increase as probation would be a necessary punishment to fulfill the need for victim justice.

Juvenile correctional systems have many different components and some are likely to be affected with a primary focus on rehabilitation. Today the United States falls short of providing adequate public juvenile facilities. With a focus on punishment, the need for new facilities will continue to rise. Switching the primary focus to rehabilitation could decrease the number of public facilities needed.The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention states “Private facilities continue to play a substantial role in the long-term custody of juveniles, in contrast to adult correctional systems. In fact, nationwide there are more than twice as many privately operated juvenile facilities as publicly operated facilities, although private facilities hold less than half as many juveniles as are held in public facilities’.

Community service and intervention programs will be called upon for more support and better results within a rehabilitation focus based juvenile justice system. Community service and intervention programs will be flooded with juveniles needing to connect or reconnect with their self and their community.This would call for a more organized and united community service base. Programs within every community will need to work together to provide the strong, ethical and motivating environments needed for juveniles to grow in self and in the community.

When communities come together to provide a complete rehabilitation service for juveniles who have chosen or been led to a life of delinquent or criminal behavior, the reward will be an increase in the number of young people successfully reintegrating into their communities. While studies indicate more successful reintegration’s with a focus on rehabilitation over punishment, some still stand firm on their belief that punishment is the way to deter future criminal activity. Many states have passed get-tough legislation designed to crack down on gang related crime and allow more and younger offenders to be transferred to the adult courts. The idea behind the emerging legislation is that juvenile crime would decrease with the threat of harsher punishment looming in the balance.According to a study on juvenile recidivism conducted in 1996 by Northeastern University, the threat of harsher sentences and/or prosecution as adults has done little to positively affect the juvenile crime rate. (James, 2010) In a study focusing on 15- and 16-year-olds, Columbia University compared juvenile offenders charged with similar crimes but tried as juveniles in one state and as adults in another.

In the case of burglary, there were "no significant differences" between the two versions of prosecution. However, in the case of robbery, a higher percentage of recidivism occurred in the group prosecuted as adults.The juvenile justice system has adopted many elements of prosecution and punishment found in the adult justice system, with little success at suppressing crime. (James, 2010) While, some arguments for punishment seem legitimate, such as removing a criminals ability to create victims by imprisonment, the advantages to a focus on rehabilitation far outweigh the advantages to punishment. While sending gang members, rapist, and homicidal juveniles to prison for long periods of time is a fair response to providing justice for victims, imprisonment at a young age will one day provide the community with an adult gang member, rapist or homicidal parolee and continued tax hikes to pay for housing more juvenile offenders for longer periods of time.

In addition, with the proven higher recidivism rate, tax payers will be paying even more when the parolee reoffends and ends up back in prison due to a lack of rehabilitation. That is a bill or society cannot afford to pay.With overwhelming evidence, the debate on whether to punish or rehabilitate juvenile offenders should be long over. The cost to the community to provide more extreme punishments is far greater than the cost of rehabilitative services.

The proof of more successful juveniles reintegrated into their community, with their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters due to a rehabilitative focus cannot, and should not be ignored. Adopting a focus on rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system is and will continue to be the most effective avenue to provide correctional services to America’s youth.