The problem of juvenile offenders and the corresponding punishment is a controversial one. While there is a law that regulates punishments for teenagers, and those punishments can be lighter compared to adult sentences, the USA remains to be the only country in the world where teenagers can be incarcerated for the rest of their lives (Knafo, 2014). As I have mentioned previously, research indicates that people do not reach full (brain) maturity until they are 25 years old (Shelat, 2018). Nevertheless, teenagers and underage individuals remain to be punished for different crimes (depending on their severity) with little regard to their ability to think clearly about the consequences of their actions. I believe that juvenile offenders should be punished for their crimes, but the punishment they receive should be appropriate to their age. This being said, I find adult sentences and lifelong incarceration fully unacceptable as forms of teenage punishments.
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The solution to the problem would be new legislation that prohibits life imprisonment for teenagers who have severely violated the law. Furthermore, imprisonment, in general, might not be a perfect idea if the society aims to reduce recidivism. Even if a teenager is responsible for a very serious offense, such as a murder or drug trafficking, he or she should be judged accordingly to his/her age and level of maturity. As teenagers find it difficult to calculate the risk of some actions they take, the court should consider this factor and avoid penalties similar to adult punishments in the future.
The first advantage might not be obvious, as it is believed that incarceration should prevent rather than stimulate recidivism. However, research demonstrates that incarceration is not effective in decreasing recidivism: the majority of those juveniles who “have been in residential correction programs are subsequently rearrested within a three-year period” (Lambie & Randell, 2013, p. 450). If the society aims to prevent juvenile offenders from repeating their crime, then another approach to this goal should be taken. Transferring juveniles to adult courts and giving them corresponding adult sentences can also have an adverse effect, Lambie and Randell found (2013). While some teenagers had claimed that their incarceration with adult offenders had no positive or negative effect on them, others pointed out that they were able to learn more about crime from adult prisoners. Obviously, such ability of teenagers to learn from adults would prevent them from being reintegrated into society as responsible and law-abiding individuals. Furthermore, teenagers in prisons tend to contact with other antisocial peers, which can also affect their future behavior and recidivism rates.
The second advantage is the decrease in victimization. According to Lambie and Randell (2013), both teenagers and adults are often abused in prisons. While male prisoners mostly suffer from physical assaults, female offenders frequently become targets of sexual victimization. The incarceration of juvenile offenders with adults is a big risk also due to adults’ better physical and cognitive development, using which they can physically assault or manipulate teenagers.
An additional problem that is caused by offenders’ underage is the victimization by facility staff. Approximately 43% of incarcerated teenagers were forced into sexual contact with facility staff, Lambie and Randell (2013) report in their study. It appears that by incarcerating juveniles with other juveniles or with adults, we as a society do not only fail to make them responsible citizens but also increase their risk of being maltreated. The problem of sexual harassment is difficult as it is, but with the existing sentences for teenagers, we only ensure that more underage individuals are sexually abused every year.
The third advantage is the public benefit that a new form of sentences can provide to the society. Instead of being imprisoned, teenagers should be educated, do volunteer work, or treated if necessary/applicable. For example, education and volunteer work are beneficial because instead of spending their time in prison without any actual purpose, teenagers will be able to learn new skills that can help them in the future or improve the infrastructure of their communities. It is difficult for the society to think critically about juvenile sex offenders as they often receive severe and harsh sentences. Kim, Benekos, and Merlo (2018) found that therapy and treatment are highly effective with sex offenders and can decrease recidivism rates among them by 10%. Whereas high-security level imprisonment is unlikely to reduce recidivism in sex offenders, treatment and therapy actually provide a chance to these individuals to become law-obedient members of society. This way, teenagers receive a chance of correcting their mistakes and learning from them (Knafo, 2014). Additionally, it is possible that therapeutic work with sex offenders can help psychologists understand what factors make a person become a sex offender and thus develop tools for prevention.
Teenagers should not receive adult sentences, as imprisonment is largely ineffective. Instead, sentences for teenagers should be eliminated or transformed in such a way that they are less harmful and more beneficial to the offender and the society. Such changes can cause a decrease in recidivism and victimization since teenagers will not face abuse from peers and adults. They will be engaged in volunteer work or education, which are more effective than incarceration. After incarceration, teenagers are often unable to reintegrate and have to commit crimes again as they do not see any other choice. Therapy and treatment can help them overcome trauma and psychological issues, as well as provide more information about sources of teenage crime to researchers.
Kim, B., Benekos, P. J., & Merlo, A. V. (2016). Sex offender recidivism revisited: Review of recent meta-analyses on the effects of sex offender treatment. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 17(1), 105-117.
Knafo, S. (2014). Why the U.S. is still the only country where youth are sentenced to die in prison. Web.
Lambie, I., & Randell, I. (2013). The impact of incarceration on juvenile offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(3), 448-459.
Shelat, D. (2018). Health encyclopedia. Web.