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Police Response to Juvenile Crime

Info: 7124 words (28 pages) Example Dissertation Proposal
Published: 22nd Oct 2021

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In response to increased juvenile crime rates during the 1980s and 1990s, state and local jurisdictions in the United States have implemented various changes to their juvenile justice systems (Butts & Mears, 2001). These changes reflected the retributive paradigm of punishment, which supported increased policing and harsher punishments for juvenile offenders. However, within the last decade, the nation has made significant strides in reforming its juvenile justice systems and practices (Butts & Mears, 2001). The shift from a punitive to a balanced and restorative approach has influenced a new era of juvenile justice and policing.

Statement of Problem

The most recent juvenile crime statistics report a 70% decline in juvenile arrest rates since the dramatic increase in the 1990s (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016). Despite the overall decline in juvenile arrests, every year more than two million adolescents come in formal contact with the juvenile justice system (Weiss, 2013).  Although a small percentage of violent juvenile offenders pose a risk to public safety, formal intervention is not appropriate for majority of non-violent adolescent offenders (National League of Cities, 2015).

For many of these non-violent youth offenders, even brief involvement with the juvenile justice system may result in negative short- and long-term consequences (National League of Cities, 2015). These outcomes may range from fewer educational and employment opportunities to higher rates of delinquency (Wiley & Esbensen, 2016; Bernburg, Krohn & Rivera, 2006).  As a result, state and federal legislators are exploring new and effective strategies that encourage juvenile accountability while promoting public safety and community building (National League of Cities, 2015).  Successful collaboration with police officers, community members, and juvenile justice agencies is crucial for building a strong foundation that supports the needs and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

Purpose and Aim of Study

The purpose of this proposal is to extend the current literature by examining law enforcement officer’s perceptions of retributive, restorative, and balanced justice to investigate the impact of these perceptions on formal or informal police response. Literature to date, primarily focuses on youth arrest or later justice system processing, and little is known about police officers’ personal attitudes. Even less is known on how these perceptions affect the officer’s decision to execute informal or formal police response to juvenile delinquency.

To investigate this phenomenon, the researcher proposes measuring the police’s perceptions of retributive, restorative, and balanced-justice to determine if their attitudes influence their decision to execute a formal or informal response. Exploring these factors may provide further insight to law enforcement’s perceptions of the three prominent paradigms of justice and how these attitudes influence officer discretion.

Research Questions

  1. What are law enforcement’s perceptions of juvenile restorative, retributive, and balanced-justice?
  2.  Is there a relationship between perceptions of restorative, retributive, and balanced-justice with police informal and formal responses?
  3. Do youth demographic characteristics predict officer discretion?

Literature Review

This chapter will focus on the nature and scope of juvenile delinquency in the United States. It will provide an overview of policing juvenile delinquency and will briefly describe the historical context of policing youth. This review will then present the literature on police-juvenile interactions and the factors.

Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency has received significant attention as a pressing social problem in the United States. Media depictions, public perceptions, and political climate have pushed juvenile crime and juvenile justice systems’ responses to it to the center of the political agenda (Feld & Bishop, 2012).  In the United States, the legal definition of juvenile delinquency varies from state to state (Hockenberry & Puzanchera, 2018; Fled & Bishop, 2012). However, generally it is defined as the illegal behavior or activities by minors between the ages of 10 and 17 (Hockenberry & Puzanchera, 2018).

Types of punishable offenses

In accordance with the definition of juvenile delinquency there are two types of punishable, law-violating behaviors – delinquent acts and status offenses. Delinquent acts refer to those offenses committed by youth under the age of 17 that if committed by an adult, could result in criminal prosecution (Hockenberry & Puzzanchera, 2018; Shoemaker, 2017). Whereas, status offenses refer to those activities that are considered illegal for minors, but not for adults.  Examples of such offenses include truancy from school, running away from home, or the consumption of alcohol under the age of 21 (Shoemaker, 2017).

Juvenile court jurisdiction

Generally, the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction is eighteen, however, some states have lowered the age limit to 16 and/or 17 (Shoemaker, 2018). This maximum age limit is often referred to as the age of majority – the age at which an individual is considered an adult (i.e. legal to vote) (Shoemaker, 2018). This upper age limit dictates whether the individual will be charged with a delinquent act (crime) or a status offense and/or whether they are processed in the juvenile or adult justice system (Shoemaker, 2018).

The upper age limit of delinquency is further dependent on jurisdictional criteria. All states have provisions in their delinquency laws for the transfer or waiver of youth offenders (Shoemaker, 2018). Generally, two requirements must be satisfied before a case can be waived to adult court jurisdiction: the age of the offender at the time the offense was committed and the nature of the offense (Shoemaker, 2018). While the age at which the youth can be transferred to the adult system varies across States, majority will transfer juveniles ages 14 and older who have committed a serious violent offense (Redding, 2010). Generally, there are four categories of offenses for which youth of a certain age may be transferred: (1) any criminal offense, (2) capital crimes and murder, (3) certain violent felonies, and (4) certain crimes committed by youth that have prior criminal records (Redding, 2010).

It is estimated that each year more than 200,000 juveniles are tried as adults due to jurisdiction age requirements that end at 15 or 16 years of age rather than at 17 (Howell, Feld, Mears, Farrington, Loeber, & Petechuk, 2013). There are currently nine states that have a set age limit of 16 or 17 years old for the juvenile system: North Carolina, New York, Missouri, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, and Wisconsin (Campaign for Youth Justice, 2016). All juveniles who are over the specified age limit, charged with even minor, non-violent offenses in these states are automatically placed in the adult system (Campaign for Youth Justice, 2016).

History of Policing Delinquency

Public and political attitudes toward the prevention and intervention of youth offenders have shifted over the years between treatment and retribution. The historical development of the juvenile court system has reflected the policing strategies of the corresponding era. Historically, there have been three eras of law enforcement reform in the United States: the political era, the reform era, and the community-strategy era (Shoemaker, 2018). This section will describe the three eras of police reform and relate each era to that of the juvenile justice system.

The Political Era: 1840 – 1930 

The political era (1840 – 1930) of American policing in the late nineteenth century symbolized the rise of political influence of police priorities and practices (Kelling & Moore, 1988). This era of policing is often characterized by the degree of political influence and corruption that plagued police departments (Shoemaker, 2018). The lack of oversight subsequently provided officers’ the ability to exercise considerable discretion. This power was frequently misused, often subjecting alleged youth offenders to be victimized by the police with little or no penalties (Shoemaker, 2018).

At the end of the 19th century, progressives of the child-saving movement attempted to reform the police and the criminal justice system (Abrams, 2013). Referred to as the U.S. Progressive Era (1900 – 1918), this social movement advocated progress, change, and reform (Cox, Allen Hanser, & Conrad, 2018). Utilizing this idea, social reformers developed a separate system of juvenile justice that would address the unique needs of youth offenders with the goal of rehabilitation rather than incarceration (Abrams, 2013; Liles & Moak, 2015).

Adopting this idea, reformers established the first juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois in 1899 (Liles & Moak, 2015; Weiss, 2013). These courts were implemented to divert juvenile offenders from the criminal justice system and to promote individualized treatment designed to rehabilitate and treat the child (Tanenhaus, 2016). While the juvenile court’s procedures varied from one jurisdiction to another, they all shared the same core objectives: to restore and promote community involvement (Weiss, 2013; Abrams, 2013).

The Reform Era: 1930 – 1980

As the public grew aware of the corrupt practices of police departments and criticism surrounding the procedures of the juvenile justice system grew, both were subject to reform once again. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. experienced a fundamental and permanent change in policing and law enforcement agencies (Brunson & Gau, 2015). Civil rights protests and riots brought highly publicized conflict between law enforcement officers and American society (Webb & Marshall, 1995). As a result of increased pressure placed on federal, state, and local governments to reform police departments, President Johnson initiated a review designed to examined and alleviate the hostility between law enforcement officers and the community (Webb & Marshall, 1995).

The reform era was characterized by increasing the professionalism of law enforcement agencies by eliminating the political control of the police (Shoemaker, 2018). This era prompted various police departments to acknowledge the problem of juvenile crime and delinquency by amending specialized juvenile units or bureaus. Officers assigned to the specialized juvenile unit were highly educated in areas including child development, delinquency, and juvenile laws and procedures (Shoemaker, 2018).  These specialized divisions were tasked with enhancing the efficacy of policing youth by emphasizing prevention rather than apprehension, deterrence, and punishment (Shoemaker, 2018).

Simultaneously, a series of Supreme Court rulings between 1966 and 1984 transformed and revolutionized the juvenile court system. Beginning with Kent v. United States (1966), the Court mandated that juveniles have the right to a formal hearing before having their case transferred to adult court (Artello, Hayes, Muschert, & Spencer, 2015). Moreover, the Court ruled that juvenile waiver proceedings must be conducted in a manner that met the provisions of due process protections by ensuring fair and equal treatment (Artello et al., 2015).

The following year, in 1967, the Court ruled in Gault (1967),that juveniles have the same constitutional due process protections as adults (In re Gault, 1967; Benekos & Merlo, 2016). The (8-1) decision extended juveniles the constitutional protections consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination, right to counsel, notice of charges, and right to cross-examination (Benekos & Merlo, 2016; Tanenhaus, 2016). By extending juveniles the same constitutional protections as adults, proponents of the Gault decision argued these protections would ultimately benefit children and society by ensuring fair and equal protections (Tanenhaus, 2016).

In addition, in 1970, the Court ruled in another landmark case in re Winship that juvenile courts must operate with the same standards as adult courts (Artello et al., 2015). The Winship decision required the juvenile justice system to set the burden of proof standard when seeking an adjudication (Artello et al., 2015). The Court’s decision held that when a juvenile is charged with a delinquent act, then every element of the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt (Artello et al., 2015).

These Supreme Court rulings transformed the juvenile court system from a rehabilitative system into a formal legal institution (McMillian, 2014). By requiring juvenile courts to uphold the same constitutional protections as adults, the Supreme Court embraced the adversarial model of adult criminal court and acknowledged juveniles as a separate group of criminal offenders (McMillian, 2014).  The Court’s decisions ultimately provided the foundation of a separate but proper juvenile justice system.

The Community-Strategy Era: 1980 – Present

The current period of juvenile policing is referred to as the Community Era, which emphasizes youth crime prevention measures through the use of strict enforcement by imposing formal sanctions (Myers, 2002). This era represents a new organizational approach to policing that embraces a renewed emphasis on community and police professionalism (Kelling & Moore, 1988). The community-strategy is characterized by integrating the police into the community to prevent crime and solve neighborhood problems, including the supervision and control of youth (Shoemaker, 2018).  Community policing strategies emphasize the utilization of officer foot patrol, information gathering, community education programs, and victim counseling and services (Kelling & Moore, 1988).

Police Use of Discretion

The juvenile justice system encompasses a variety of private and public agencies that permit individuals to make important decisions about youth accused of delinquent acts (Lundman, 2001). Majority of adolescents come in contact with the juvenile justice system when arrested by police officers (Lundman, 2001). As the initial gatekeeper to the juvenile justice system, law enforcement officers have arguably the most discretionary power of any juvenile justice professional (Bazemore & Senjo, 1997). Police officers have the ability to arrest and pursue formal processing or facilitate informal punishment (Bazemore & Senjo, 1997; Lawrence & Hemmens, 2008).

Police-Juvenile Encounters

It is well established that a significant amount of police discretion is exercised in responding to juvenile delinquency. Previous research suggests that compared to adults, crimes committed by youth are perceived differently by police (Schulenberg, 2010; Allen, 2005; Schulenberg & Warren, 2009; Rollwagen & Jacob, 2017). Allen (2005) argues that delinquent behavior committed by juveniles is perceived more serious than similar behavior executed by an adult. Despite this perception, Myers (2002) found that law enforcement officers take juveniles into official custody in only 13% of their encounters. In addition, in 2014, juveniles accounted for only approximately 9 percent of all arrests made by police (Shoemaker, 2018).

Responses to delinquency

Piliavin and Briar (1964) suggest that law enforcement officers who encounter youths engaged in unlawful behavior have several procedures for responding to such activity: formal /official and informal/unofficial. Formal responses may include taking a juvenile into custody, taking a report, referring to a social service agency or juvenile court, issuing a citation, or making an arrest (Cox et al., 2018). However, previous research indicates that informal or unofficial responses are more common (Piliavin & Briar, 1970; Black & Reiss, 1970).

Informal or unofficial responses may include reprimanding the juvenile and releasing them to the custody of their parents; asking for information; requesting that a juvenile leave the area or cease the disorderly/illegal behavior; or threatening to charge or make an arrest if the behavior continues (Cox et al., 2018). These responses are considered informal because there may not be a written record of the interaction and subsequent outcome. However, the officer still demonstrates their legitimacy and authority by attempting to correct the youth’s unlawful behavior.

Factors Influencing Discretion

Although a substantial amount research has been conducted to examine police behavior, a relatively small number of studies have empirically assessed factors that shape police behavior toward juveniles (Skaggs & Sun, 2016; Bazemore & Senjo, 1997; Allen, 2005). In exercising discretion, officers consider both the nature of the offense and characteristics of the offender (Rollwagen & Jacob, 2017). Research shows that juvenile delinquents with a prior criminal history and those who commit a more serious or violent offense are more likely to be arrested (Wolf, 2014; Rollwagen & Jacob, 2017). Extralegal factors such as race and low socioeconomic status are also important in determining the likelihood of an arrest among juvenile offenders (Rollwagen & Jacob, 2017; Chesney-Lind, 1995; Sampson, 1986).

Research has consistently found that youths who are perceived as disrespectful toward the police are more likely to be arrested (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman, Skyes, & Clark, 1978; Piliavin & Briar, 1954). A study conducted by Black and Reiss (1970) indicated that juveniles who were found to act respectfully, had few or no prior police contact(s), and are perceived as having cooperative parents, are significantly more likely to be dealt with unofficially.

Influence of demographic characteristics

The impact of demographic characteristics on police behavior has been inconsistent (Skaggs & Sun, 2016). Past studies have suggested that males, minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic status were arrested at higher rates compared to their counterparts (Black & Reiss, 1970; Piliavin & Briar, 1964; Morash, 1984). However, not all studies have found the same conclusion (Myers, 2002; Taylor & Khan, 2013).

Still, gender has been cited as a significant predictor of police use of discretion. Female suspects are significantly less likely to be handled officially (i.e.  arrest) by police than male juvenile suspects (Chesney-Lind, 1995; Skaggs & Sun, 2016; Myers, 2002). However, females are more likely than males to be referred for status offenses such as running away or disobeying parents (Chesney-Lind, 1995). Myers (2002) also found that females were significantly more likely to receive support from the police than their counterparts.

The impact of age on police behavior has also demonstrated mixed conclusions. Some studies have found that the majority of officers do consider the age of the juvenile in making their decisions (Parker & Sarre, 2008). Research has also found that younger juveniles were given written and oral warning more frequently (Taylor & Khan, 2013), while older juveniles were more likely to be interrogated (Cleary, 2014). However, Morash (1984) concluded that age is not a significant predictor of police discretion.

Officer Perceptions of Justice

Police officer attitudes toward juveniles have rarely been examined in previous literature. Some scholars have contended that law enforcement officers have little trust in the criminal justice system and believe that the system does not properly punish offenders (Klinger, 1997; Wiechman, 1979; Skaggs & Sun, 2017).  Hines and Bazemore (2003) concluded in their study of police perceptions, that law enforcement officers who claim to support the restorative justice paradigm and value restorative justice practices, did not perceive it as integral to policing. To examine police officer perceptions of justice, it is important to first define each paradigm within the scope of juvenile justice. The following section will review the three paradigms of justice.

Retributive Paradigm of Juvenile Justice

Historically, the United States has been notoriously characterized as a highly punitive, retributive society (Tyler, 2006; Whitman, 2003). The dramatic increase in violent urban youth homicide and gun violence in the 1980s and early 1990s, agitated a nation-wide moral panic that precipitated punitive juvenile legislation (Merlo, Benekos & Champion, 2016; Feld & Bishop, 2012). Supporting the idea of “adult time for adult crime” (Abrams, 2013, p. 726) and the emphasis on juvenile offenders as super-predators the public shifted toward a punitive response to juvenile offending (Benekos, Merlo, & Puzzanchera, 2013; Benekos & Merlo, 2016; Abrams, 2013).

The retributive paradigm of justice relies heavily on deterrence theory. Deterrence theory posits that legal sanctions and formal contact with the justice system will deter criminal behavior by increasing the perceived risks associated with committing crime (Stafford & Warr, 1993). Proponents suggest that traditional policing practices and order maintenance strategies reduce criminal activity (Wiley & Esbensen, 2016). Further arguing, that an arrest will reduce the likelihood of future offending. Modern policing strategies generally follow this perspective with increased police presence and monitoring to prevent criminal behavior. Deterrence-oriented policing relies heavily on swift, certain, and severe punishment with the goal of reducing future criminal offending (Wiley & Esbensen, 2016).

Restorative Paradigm of Juvenile Justice

Following the “get tough” era, the United States’ juvenile justice system experienced yet another paradigm shift. The restorative approach challenged the ideology of punitive punishment and legislators to reexamine the values and goals of the juvenile justice system (Pavelka, 2016).  Restorative justice refers to both a paradigm or philosophy of justice and a set of policies and practices. This model is aimed at making both juvenile and criminal justice systems more responsive to the roles and needs of victims, offenders, and communities (Dorne, 2007).

The restorative justice movement was introduced in the United States in the 1970s, as criticisms began to surface concerning the specific goals of the traditional juvenile and criminal justice systems (Dorne, 2007; Liles & Moak, 2015). The restorative justice philosophy serves as an alternative to adversarial formal court processing (Kurlychek, Torbet, & Bozynski, 1999) and is based on the idea that reconciliation, reparation, and transformation result in a healing process that repairs the relationships between the offender, victim, and community (Duncan & Dickie, 2013).

The restorative justice paradigm responds to crime differently than the traditional justice system (Strickland, 2004; Pavelka & Thomas, 2016; Shapland et al., 2011). Under this model, a criminal offense is viewed as a violation of the relationship between the offender and the community, rather than as a violation against the law (Pavelka & Thomas, 2016). Meaning, it does not focus solely on the crime, but rather in a broader context by examining the harm that the crime inflicts on those involved (victims, communities, and offenders) (Strickland, 2004). By addressing the harm endured, it stresses the victims’ and the communities’ needs and less on the punitive punishment of the offender (Strickland, 2004).

According to Howard Zehr (2002) one of the main founders of the restorative justice movement, restorative justice offers an alternative framework for thinking about crime and justice through the specification of five key principles:

  1. Focus on the harms and consequent needs of the victims, as well as the communities’ and the offenders’;
  2. Address the obligations that result from those harms;
  3. Use inclusive, collaborative processes;
  4. Involve those with a legitimate stake in the situation, including victims, offenders, and community members, and society;
  5. Seek to put right the wrongs (p. 32-33).

The restorative justice paradigm is often referred to as an ‘conceptual umbrella’ that encompasses a wide range of practices, approaches, and applications (Shapland, Robinson, & Sorsby, 2011).  The primary goal of restorative justice is to repair the harm caused by the criminal offense, while balancing the needs and roles of the victim(s), offender, and community (Pavelka, 2016). This model emphasizes the importance of restoring community relationships by utilizing a collective approach that generates distinctive roles and shared responsibilities for stakeholders, including victims, offenders, police, justice professionals, and community members (Pavelka, 2016).

The primary objective of restorative justice is to repair the harm caused by the criminal offense, while balancing the needs and roles of the victim(s), offender, and community (Pavelka, 2016). Proponents of restorative justice assert that because crime causes injury or harm to everyone involved, all affected parties must participate in the restorative process (Strickland, 2004). This process emphasizes restoring the emotional and material losses of victims, encourages communication among stakeholders, and delegates an appropriate punishment (Strickland, 2004). The objective of this process is to promote greater public safety and to rebuild the relationships with the community and those affected by the offense (Hipple, Gruenewald, & McGarrell, 2014).

Specifically, restorative justice programs emphasize accountability by encouraging the youth offender to take responsibility for his or her actions by making amends with those impacted by their offense (Hipple, Gruenewald, & McGarrell, 2014). These programs have demonstrated promise for achieving the goals of increased victim and offender satisfaction with case outcomes, greater community and victim involvement in the justice process and recidivism reduction (McCold & Watchtel, 1998; Bergseth & Bouffard, 2012; McGarrell & Hipple, 2007).

Balanced Paradigm of Juvenile Justice

The term balanced justice is often used in conjunction with restorative justice: balanced and restorative justice (BARJ) (Bazemore & Umbreit, 1998). According to Dorne (2007), this is the premise of the restorative justice paradigm: “justice being applied or distributed as equitably as possible across the four major or relevant parties or entities: the offender, the victim, the community, and the government (p. 7)”. According to Bazemore and Umbreit’s (1998) BARJ guide, balance also refers to the equal emphasis on: accountability, competency development, and community safety.

The balanced paradigm supports rehabilitation through a combination of competency development, sanctioning through accountability, and public safety (Bazemore & Umbreit, 1997).  Competency development refers to the process to which juveniles learn the necessary skills that are needed to be functional, productive law-abiding citizens. The domains associated with competency development include: pro-social skills, moral reasoning skills, academic skills, workforce development, and independent living skills (Torbet & Thomas, 2005). The goal of these skill-domains is to encourage a sense of self-worth and hope for their future by reintegrating the adolescent back into the community, while also reducing the likelihood of reoffending (Bergseth & Bouffard, 2012). Ultimately, this approach seeks to ensure public safety, address the needs of victims, but also holding the offender accountable.


Literature to date, primarily focuses on youth arrest or later justice system processing, and little is known about police officers’ personal attitudes. Even less is known on how these perceptions affect the officer’s decision to execute informal or formal police response to juvenile delinquency. The purpose of this proposal is to collect data regarding officers’ perceptions of restorative, retributive, and balanced justice to investigate how these attitudes impact formal or informal policing strategies of juvenile offenders.


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