Balancing Zero Tolerance and Juvenile Justice: Issues for Rational Juvenile Justice Policy

Alida V. Merlo, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Peter J. Benekos, Mercyhurst College

In the last 103 years juvenile justice has become increasingly more procedural and formal, and public attitudes toward youthful offenders have changed. Although the juvenile justice system was originally intended to provide youth with an alternative to adult criminal court (i.e., diversion), there has been a significant transformation in policies toward youth. Specifically, society seems inclined to demand more accountability of youth and more punitive approaches to delinquent behavior. In trying to understand and assess the current state of juvenile justice in the United States, it is instructive to understand the effects of ideology, politics and the media on juvenile justice policy (Merlo and Benekos 2000). These themes serve as lenses and help focus on the forces that have "reformed" juvenile justice. They provide a framework for viewing the systemic evolution that has occurred. The conservative "get tough" attitude that characterized criminal justice policy since the late 1970s has been incorporated into policies for youth. From changes in juvenile statutes which abolish confidentiality provisions and allow juvenile offenders' names to be published to the incorporation of a balanced and restorative justice model, most legislatures have reevaluated perceptions of youth and reformulated policies toward youthful offenders. One measure of these changes is the increase in the number of youth in out-of-home placements. Puzzanchera reports that between 1989 and 1998, the number of adjudicated youth that received such placements increased 37 percent from 119,700 to 163,800 cases (2002:1). Even though crime rates for adults and juveniles have continued to decline (Snyder 2000), punitive attitudes persist and fear of crime remains a salient public concern. Simultaneously, politicians have seized the crime issue and have proposed harsher sanctions toward juvenile offenders. Candidates for public office understand the importance of shibolleths that emphasize strict sanctions for youth and they embrace them. The media have also influenced perspectives of youth and helped to solidify the belief that youth are like "mini-adults" who should be held to the same standards and subject to the same punishments. For example, findings from a Canadian survey suggest the widespread nature of these changes and the "considerable pressure to impose harsher penalties on juvenile offenders" (Tufts and Roberts 2002:46). In her study, Sprott (1998) found that a majority of respondents opposed a separate system for youthful offenders and perceived that youth in the juvenile justice system received sanctions that were too lenient. While studies such as these also find that the public is not well informed about juvenile justice policy, nonetheless, the "views of the public and the reaction of politicians are clearly linked in a spiral of punitiveness" (Tufts and Roberts 2002:48). In this prevailing climate of intolerance, zero tolerance policies have become popular solutions to the complex problems of adolescent behaviors. A survey of college students found that a majority supported zero tolerance policies and drug testing in high schools (Merlo, Benekos and Cook 2001). School policies that mandate expulsions for weapons (i.e., mandatory sentences for youth) have captured media attention, often for their excessiveness in punishing youth for innocent behaviors (e.g., bringing nail clippers to school; sharing mints). Students who have minor violations can be punished as severely as students who bring weapons to school (New York Times 2002). Incidents such as these prompted one parent to say that "Zero tolerance doesn't mean zero judgement or rights" (New York Times 2002:A23). This underscores that reactionary policies that restrict discretion and emphasize punishment may actually distort justice and be an iatrogenesis that does more harm than good (Miller 1996). Utilizing these three themes, ideology, politics and the media, this paper identifies four perspectives that characterize attitudes toward youth and policies that have been developed to respond to youthful offenders. In particular, we examine: the conservative ideology which has transformed attitudes toward youth; the adultification of youth and the concomitant changes which permit youth to be waived or transferred to adult court and to be subject to the same sanctions as adults; violent youth and the victimization of youth including school violence; and disproportionate minority representation in juvenile justice and the increase in female juvenile offending. In this critique of the juvenile justice system, the authors discuss recent trends that reaffirm rational policies and therapeutic interventions. They offer support for policies that seek to expand innovations that maintain emphasis on prevention, early intervention and jurisdictional separation.

(Return to Program Resources)

Updated 05/20/2006