Juvenile Justice Rehabilitation vs. Punishment

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Policymakers must choose between policies that punish young offenders and those that work toward their rehabilitation when seeking policies to address youth crime. The problem has a twist, though, because while a portion of the public favors a punitive strategy, the other half favors a rehabilitative strategy. The US Supreme Court has issued important rulings in the past ten years regarding the guilt of juvenile offenders. For instance, life without parole was prohibited for all crimes other than homicide after the death sentence was abolished in 2005. Recently, the compulsory life sentence for crimes was stopped, with the court citing developmental science for its decisions in the cases.

This report discusses a study carried out to examine the public support for correctional reform in Texas, a “red state.” According to the findings, there was a general agreement amongst the respondents that rehabilitation is the more favorable mode of dealing with juvenile delinquency as opposed to imprisonment. To support the findings, the report shall incorporate the results and views of research studies carried out by other experts.

Choosing between Rehabilitative Intervention and Imprisonment for Juvenile Offenders

Thielo (2013) and colleagues carried out a survey in which they sought to examine and get the public’s opinion on the more preferred and effective mode of dealing with juvenile offenders. With the respondent cohort consisting of 1,001 probable voters in Texas, a “red state,” the researchers made four distinct conclusions from the opinions gathered. First, it was apparent that the participants were in support of rehabilitation, as opposed to incarceration and imprisonment. Secondly, they showed an obvious inclination towards the application of alternatives to incarceration as opposed to prison or jail terms, particularly for non-violent and drug related offences. Third, more than 80 percent of those surveyed approved of a particular policy reform advocating the use of treatment rather than prison for nonviolent drug offenders. Finally, with minimal variance, the respondents depicted considerable level of consensus across various groups in their support for correctional reform and rehabilitation.

With the escalation of mass improvement nearing its end, the strong public support for correctional reform depicts the growing sensibility about the control of crime. There is an emergent nationwide consensus regarding the unsustainability of excessive use of incarceration, and that offenders considered as low risk should no longer be sanctioned with a jail term. The Texas public, and in the entire America, is keen to support a policy agenda that incorporates treatment of delinquents, prison downsizing, and substitutes to internment. According to the researchers, the elected officials in the country are faced with the challenge of taking advantage of this ideological opportunity and pursuing the agenda further. Additionally, Texas politicians made use of the space in the implementation of correctional policy reforms. The study established that they would not face any public backlash for this, but would instead gain political capital for the pains.

According to Monahan, Steinberg & Piquero (2015), reactions to the issue of juvenile delinquency are continually swinging between punishment and rehabilitative choices in the last five decades. Recent research examining adolescents, their decision making, and brain developmental issues have shifted policy makers back towards rehabilitation. This has also affected the decisions of the US Supreme Court on sentencing of juvenile offenders. According to the research, the youth tend to be more short-sighted, impulsive, and responsive to instant incentives, therefore less likely to make think about the long-term consequences of their actions. As a result, they are also less culpable compared to adults. The study went further to conclude and recommend that responding to juvenile delinquency should take the malleable aspects surrounding psychosocial functioning into consideration.

A further study was conducted to examine the perceptions of the actual participants of the juvenile justice system, the juvenile offenders. According to the results, opinions of the respondents, consisting of juvenile delinquents from two conservative Midwestern facilities, agreed with those of the public. There was a unanimous view that child-saving must be the major purpose behind juvenile justice system. The research also confirmed the fact that public support for rehabilitative approaches towards juvenile delinquency has remained stable over the past few decades. However, they noted that while most of the research collected the views of juvenile correctional officers and probation staff, the perception of the offenders was barely sought. This prompted the current study dubbed “Voices from Inside the Walls: Views of the Juvenile Justice System from the Youthful Offenders.”

A study by Baker (2013) found that almost 75 percent of American citizens were in support of the rehabilitative policies (also known as child saving), with approximately 50 percent willing to pay for them. Besides, the researcher established that fear and knowledge about crime were associated with the willingness to pay for the rehabilitative policies. Baker (2013) and others conducted a study titled “Crime Salience and Public Willingness to Pay for Child Saving and Juvenile Punishment.” The researchers sought to examine the opinion of the public in regards to policies based on youth justice. They explored the impact of crime salience on the support for child-saving against punishment for the youth. Similar to the previous studies, the current research acknowledged the fact that public policy in matters of juvenile criminal activities often shifts between child saving and punishment. Generally, scholars are of the belief that there exists a link between public opinion and the policies on youth justice. Another more common belief is that the prominence of crime is associated with the opinion of the public about sanctions on the youth. The current study also sought to test these widespread beliefs, with results depicting that fear raises punitiveness, the willingness to pay for youth punishment. However, it doesn’t affect the willingness of the public to pay for child saving.

While not entirely supporting juvenile rehabilitation over punishment, Mears, Pickett & Mancini (2014) conducted a research dubbed “Support for Balanced Juvenile Justice; Assessing Views about Youth, Rehabilitation, and Punishment.” According to the researchers, the juvenile court, as an integral part of the judicial system, is envisioned with rehabilitating and punishing young lawbreakers. However, previous studies had failed to directly evaluate and examine the existing support for a balanced juvenile justice that was a hybrid of rehabilitation and punishment approaches as a sanction. The study sought to test the hypotheses about any support of this nature. Using multinomial logistic regression with data from 866 criminal justice and criminology classes, the researchers established that a majority of the participants were in favor of a balanced judicial approach for violent youth offenders. An estimated 30 percent opted for a primarily rehabilitative approach, while the remainder preferred a fundamentally punishment-based approach. The study notes that the respondents, who believed in youth reformation, thus pushing for treatment, would more probably opt for the balanced justice or primarily rehabilitative approach to youth sanctions.


Baker, T. et al. (2013). Crime Salience and Public Willingness to pay for Child Saving and Juvenile Punishment. Crime and Delinquency. 62 (5); 645-668

Mears, D.P., Pickett, J.T. & Mancini, C. (2015). Support for Balanced Juvenile Justice; Assessing Views about Youth, Rehabilitation, and Punishment. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 31 (3); 459-479

Monahan, K., Steinberg, L. & Piquero, A.R. (2015). Juvenile Justice Policy and Practice; A Developmental Perspective. Crime and Justice. 44 (1); 577-619

Pealer, J., Terry, A.N. & Adams, K.R. (2017). Voices from Inside the Walls: Views of the Juvenile Justice System from the Youthful Offenders. Corrections, Policy, Practice and Research. 2 (2); 130-147

Thielo, A.J. et al. (2015). Rehabilitation in a Red State. Criminology & Public Policy. 15 (1); 137-170

July 15, 2023

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