The presence of social workers in the juvenile jail system is always necessary and key to effective rehabilitation of youth offenders. The juvenile justice system frequently comes in for harsh criticism from a variety of stakeholders. However, it remains a relevant, necessary and legitimate social institution. In order to understand how the contemporary debate surrounding the juvenile justice system unfolds, we need to take a close look at the history of its inception. Before the 18th century reforms, children over the age of seven were put in prison together with adults.
However, psychological research and social progress in general led to the establishment of the New York House of Refuge in 1824 aimed at rehabilitating rather than punishing youth offenders.
Beginning in 1899, other states followed suit. Early reformatories were more like orphanages and were driven by a conviction that the government should assume a parens patria or guardian role with regard to youth offenders in order to prevent them from being absorbed by the criminal culture. Many in those reformatories were indeed orphans and homeless children.
Gradually, juvenile courts assumed jurisdiction over almost all cases involving persons under the age of eighteen and tried to make their civil proceedings unlike adult criminal trials. The problem that arouse was that youth offenders could not avail themselves of the exercise of the right to due process and to trial by jury guaranteed by the 5th and 14th Amendments. The landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision ruled that underage offenders should be granted due process rights, such as the right to receive notice of charges, the right to obtain legal counsel, the right cross-examination, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to receive a transcript of the proceedings, and the right to appellate review. The dissenting judge, Justice Potter Stewart, opposed the ruling for the reason it converted a juvenile proceeding into a criminal prosecution which contradicted the historical intent of the juvenile justice system to rehabilitate offenders and in this way meet society’s responsibilities to the child.
In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed which created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the Runaway Youth Program, and the National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (NIJJDP). The amount of federal funding made available to states to fund juvenile delinquency programs evidenced strong momentum in support of a differential approach to young and adult offenders.
However, a steep increase in juvenile crime took place between the late 1980s and mid-1990s. In response to that, the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was amended to allow trying underage offenders as adults for violence and unlawful possession of weapons. School shootings and other horrendous offenses led to a mindset that put public safety higher than rehabilitation of youth offenders. Although it was later acknowledged that the threat posed by juvenile delinquents was exaggerated, changes in the U.S. criminal justice system have already been introduced.
There are voices which argue that the recent get tough on crime legislation has not achieved its aims and brought more negative effects than advantages. In order to prove that underage offenders should indeed be treated differently from adult criminals, it is necessary to take a look at different crime causation theories. One of the most relevant theories is Differential Association theory. The theory is referred to as a learning theory of crime or interactionist theory of crime. The starting point of the theory is formed by the assumption that criminal behavior is something individuals are socialized into in the process of interaction with other individuals, during which they internalize values and orientations typical for the criminal subculture. In such a way, values are transmitted from persons inside the criminal subculture to persons who are yet outside it. Committing crimes becomes more and more acceptable as a person is being socialized into norms and values of the criminal community.
Transmission of patterns of criminal behavior is more likely to happen in small groups of peers. Together with internalizing values associated with criminality, a person is learning techniques for committing crimes and acquiring resources, such as arms and contacts, which make carrying out criminal actions easier. Thus, learning the techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes of the criminal subculture is how an individual enters organized crime, according to Edwin Sutherland (1988). Entry occurs when definitions favorable to violation of law exceed definitions unfavorable to violation of law. While criminal behavior can sometimes be motivated by material needs, such needs are not enough to cause entry into crime. All people have the same basic needs, yet non-criminals choose legitimate ways of fulfilling their needs, such as gainful employment, yet criminals have an excess of definitions unfavorable to observing the law and prefer to commit a crime to fulfill their needs.
It follows that youth offenders put in prisons together with adult criminals will acquire even more definitions favorable to breaking the law than prior to incarceration. Moreover, they will develop skills and networks necessary for criminal activity; they will become so familiar with the subculture that they will be unable to adapt to dominant social values upon their release. The option that will seem most attractive to them will be to engage in further crime. The goal of their rehabilitation will not be achieved, and the state will fail on its guardian mission.
Another theory which advocates the prevalence of nurture over nature in juvenile delinquency causation is Merton’s theory of anomie, sometimes also referred to as the strain theory, which puts an emphasis on the gap between socially desirable goals and socially acceptable means to achieve them. Merton (1938) suggested a matrix to explicate the typology of deviance. According to this matrix, there are five categories of people. Those who accept both culture goals and institutionalized means represent conformity. Those who reject culture goals yet accept institutionalized means represent ritualism. Those who accept culture goals yet reject institutionalized means represent innovation. Those rejecting both culture goals and institutionalized means represent retreatism. The fifth category of individuals, those who exhibit deviant behavior, form new culture goals and achieve them by new, non-institutionalized means.
They represent rebellion against dominant cultural orientations in a society as well as avenues prescribed for achieving them. Many teenagers, at the developmental stage of adolescents, question both acceptable goals and ways to achieve them, therefore they can be prone to enter crime.
Presence of social workers in a juvenile jail is necessary precisely for this reason. It is important to keep in mind, however, that social work functions within juvenile justice settings are not exclusively managed by social workers. Probation officers, police, court psychiatrists, and judges are all involved in casework, child advocacy and social service programming.
As concerns social workers, helping teenagers to cope with their problem and re-enter the society as fully rehabilitated members is the goal of social intervention at juvenile prisons. Crime usually goes hand in hand with other problems, such as family violence or substance abuse.
Thus, social interventions in juvenile prisons can be seen as set to achieve two goals: first of all, social workers should help teenage offenders to cope with problems they were suffering from at the moment of arrest, be it drug dependency or health problems. Secondly, social workers should equip teenagers with skills, values and competencies that will enable them to succeed after the release without committing further crime. Effective aftercare can also be seen as a part of a social worker’s role in the juvenile court system: post-release supervision is absolutely imperative for completing the cycle of rehabilitation, as the National Association of Social Workers (2009) informs.