Making Some Noise: Degradation as Tension Reduction for the Criminal Court Punishment of Adolescents in New York

Aaron Kupchik, New York University

Due to its low age boundary for criminal court punishment of adolescents, New York is a frontrunner among states getting tough on juvenile crime by punishing children as adults. This paper draws on ethnographic research in a New York criminal court specializing in the prosecution of adolescents, and on interviews of courtroom decision-makers in this court. It explores the tensions and contradictions that are produced when adolescents are prosecuted as if they were adults. By focusing on this court's balance of both traditional 'juvenile justice' concerns and formally rational 'criminal justice' concerns, I discuss these tensions and one strategy used by the court to resolve them - degradation. In this court, the judge uses degrading language as an intermediate sanction in lieu of severe punishment. This use of degradation resolves some of the conceptual contradictions and practical problems of prosecuting adolescents in a formal criminal court environment. I argue that the use of this tactic is structured by the setting of criminal courts and the difficulties inherent to prosecuting adolescents as adults.

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Updated 05/20/2006