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Introduction to Juvenile Justice
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The question has been posed on whether the United States Supreme Court was correct in saying
that it is unconstitutional for juveniles to be given life without the opportunity for parole. In this
paper, the answer will be found to be a resounding yes; that the Supreme Court was correct in its
findings, and that truthfully the court should have gone farther in its ruling. Juveniles should be
held responsible for their actions, but in a constructive manner that saves citizen’s money, but
also potentially saves the juveniles life. Juveniles put into prison for a lifetime cost more money
than they probably would have contributed to society. Juveniles who are forgotten inside prison
will most undoubtedly turn into criminals as well due to their young age and impressionability.
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The Supreme Court of the United States of America in 2005 ruled that the death penalty
for juveniles was unconstitutional as a cruel and unusual punishment. The argument regarding
juvenile sentencing has now shifted towards whether a juvenile being sentenced to life in prison
without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Opponents of the sentence
have gathered together piles of research that says sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without
the possibility of parole is in fact cruel and unusual punishment. This paper undertakes the task
to prove they are correct in two realms of policy consideration: a dollar cost and whether the goal
of punishing a juvenile in such a manner meets any rehabilitative goal of the criminal justice
system. The goal of this paper is to show that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the
possibility of parole simply makes no sense.
Obviously one can argue that sentencing someone to life in prison without the possibility
of parole is as good as the death penalty. This argument is invalid because it is flat wrong; dead
is dead. The true argument is whether in the long run sentencing a juvenile to life in prison
without the possibility of parole meets a goal of rehabilitating a juvenile, or saving money. To
sentence a juvenile to any lengthy amount of time in prison, let alone a lifetime, is cruel and
unusual punishment, and cost the taxpayers more money.
The Budget Crisis
Today policy makers everywhere have one major thought in their head on any given day;
debt. Policymakers are forced to analyze numbers, figures, results, and reasons regarding nearly
every program in their budgets to try and get black numbers on the board. Jails and the criminal
justice system are no exception, as of 2010 states planned on spending $63.4 billion a year
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(Teichner, 2012). While $63.4 billion is nothing compared to the full budget and debt of the
United States, it is a very large amount of money. Juveniles make up a small portion of this huge
number, but in this atmosphere of cost analysis, every dollar spent has to go towards a success or
The daily cost of an inmate
According to CBS News it costs around $30,000-$60,000 (Teichner, 2012) dollars per
inmate, per year for a prison. That figure is for an adult inmate, juveniles have a different cost.
Today almost 30%-40% of inmate costs go towards health and security concerns (How does
California spend $49,000 per prisoner, 2010) (Sivasailam, 2011). Then another very large chunk
of that cost goes towards staffing and facility operations (How does California spend $49,000 per
prisoner, 2010) (Sivasailam, 2011). These percentages simply deflate the argument that prisoners
are too comfortable with their color televisions.
Instead the question is raised on why our prison population is so large compared to many
other industrialized nations. It is common knowledge that our prisons are overcrowded, and
simply asking your local sheriff if he or she has enough beds can prove that. Examining the
overall prison population 50% of the population is incarcerated for drug crimes, another 30% for
public order crimes (Suede, 2011). Obviously, drugs have a negative effect on an individual,
disregarding the arguments surrounding marijuana. However, until that individual commits a
property crime or violent crime, technically he or she has hurt no one but themselves. Public
order crimes are even harder to classify a victim in, considering that public order crimes can
constitute dancing in the streets.Quoting Micheal Suede, “Victimless Crime Constitutes 86% of
The Federal Prison Population,” (Suede, 2011).
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This extreme get tough on crime attitude has resulted in the overcrowded prisons, severe
budget issues, and large recidivism rate that many other countries do not share. Today policy
makers are realizing how bad the situation is and have begun to turn sentencing structures
towards a more rehabilitative goal than penal goal. Juveniles, however, can only add to this
budget crisis if put into jail or prison.
The Cost of a Lifetime in Prison
Today’s juveniles cost an outrageous amount of money to incarcerate annually. A
juvenile who sits in a cell for a year in Connecticut costs the taxpayers $726 per day. A bit of
math can show an individual the amount spent on a juvenile in a year: 726 multiplied by 365(a
year) is…$264,990 (How much does it cost to incarcerate a youth, 2010). The average dollar
amount a state spends on a juvenile is about $88,000 (How much does it cost to incarcerate a
To calculate just how much an individual imprisoned for life is going to cost the
taxpayers, one must take into account the current average lifespan of an American. Due to
advanced sciences lifespans are increasing, this is not a disputed fact. The average lifespan of an
American today is 78.5 years (CDC, 2009). So based upon the numbers that this paper has
revealed so far; the following formulas, using the low end of the possibilities, shows just how
much an individual who is incarcerated for life is going to cost to taxpayers.
Total amount taxpayers pay to keep a
16 year old locked away for life
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Now, $1,991,000 may seem like a large figure, but if you use the more expensive prisons
as examples the figure jumps to $4,158,000. This extremely large number, which is more than
what many people will make in their entire life, still does not include outstanding expenses that
cannot be properly repaid. These figures can include: costs of investigation, attorney fees, trial
fees, and etc.
However, what is probably the hardest to calculate, and something far beyond the scope
of this paper, is the lost opportunity cost of that individual. Locking someone in jail for their
entire life does two things very quickly. First, locking a person in jail for their entire adult life
turns that individual into a black hole on the economy; they produce nothing, and consume
millions of dollars as we have just discussed. The second part of locking a person in jail for their
life does is to sacrifice any potential they had to contribute to society.
For example, a young man may make a choice while in the company of his peers to go
‘knock over’ a convenience store. What actually happens is the resistive young female worker is
raped or murdered, an absolute horrendous thing to happen. However, what if that young man
had just been accepted into Princeton as a student in the medicine program, and he was
intelligent enough to not only succeed but surpass anything Princeton had seen before and
eventually found a complete cure to some deadly disease. While both sides of this story are
extreme, the immediate reaction of an individual reading about the crime is to lock the young
man up and throw away the key. That same individual though, would never think to hold back
the study of disease cure, which is immeasurable in its gains for humanity.
Another unrealized large cost to society and the taxpayers is the ‘education’ that the
juvenile has received up to the point of incarceration. While it is not the job of a public school to
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teach a juvenile decision making skills, it is the public school’s job to give that individual a well-
rounded curriculum. An average student has $10,000 (IES, 2012) spent on him or her for a single
school year, which is not necessarily 365 days. So if a student begins school at six years old, and
is jailed at sixteen, then the taxpayers have wasted about $100,000 on this individual.
To recap, the basic total cost of an individual who is jailed at the age of 16 and sentenced
to life in prison without the possibility of parole is $1,991,000 to about $4,000,000. These figures
do not include unmeasured costs as listed above. These figures also do not include any
emergency medical treatment that is needed, such as a surgery. These figures are absolutely too
high, and seem to point to an outdated system that still relies on the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away
the key’ mentality. It is now being proven that this thought process is wrong, and compared to a
rehabilitative standpoint, simply does not work.
The cost of rehabilitation
Delving into the costs of rehabilitation, one first needs to understand that the entire goal
of rehabilitation is education. The goals of rehabilitative education can be described as: what,
why, and how to stop. One of the top colleges in the world is Princeton University, which offers
an education at a rate of about $37,000 per year (Resnick, 2011). Taking our previous number of
$88,000 for a juvenile it would actually save the states money to send a juvenile to Princeton
University for 2 years than to lock that same individual up in a prison. Now when one uses an
adult as an example, there are going to be prisons that will lose money on an experiment like
this. California, however, averages about $49,000(How does California spend $49,000 per
prisoner, 2010) and has one of the largest state prison populations in the country, at 207,000
(CCR, 2012). Because of the fact the Princeton is in New Jersey, for this example the college
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will instead be the California Institute of Technology, which is in the top ten of the top colleges
in the country and has an annual tuition of $39,000 (NCR, 2012).
A state like California simply cannot close the entire corrections department and send all
of the offenders off to college though, but this example provides a clear concept of how
backwards the states are when it comes to incarceration versus rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation for a juvenile would most probably include: drug or alcohol rehab,
thinking for a change, anger management, life skills, life maps, and perhaps basic education. A
good program should be built around the individual to address specific behavioral issues, as well
as any learning disabilities, maturity lags, or perhaps abuse related issues that a standardized one
program fits all approach truly cannot give to someone. One decent program is the
MultiSystemic Therapy Program, or MST. The MST estimates that a juvenile sent through a full
program costs about $4,000 (Cost, 2012).
The cost of MST compared to simple incarceration is $84,000 a year. As large as the debt
and budget crisis going on in our communities is right now, this simple figure of $84,000 should
point plainly towards a new form of treatment. With the success of a program like MST then the
taxpayers not only save money now, but the taxpayers are also not forced to support an aging
inmate population that could have been prevented.
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Rehabilitation should be a detailed approach towards change in an individual. This goal
should be focused around education, recognizing the factors that resulted in incarceration, and
working towards a change in those same factors.
A Juvenile’s Thought Process
Common knowledge understands that there is a reason for a juvenile justice system:
because teenagers don’t think. There have been countless studies that have shown how brain
development is not complete until a person is in his or her early twenties. Many people
understand that there is a reason that teenagers are continually pushed to be kept under
surveillance whether in the home with parents, at school with teachers, at extracurricular
activities with coaches; to keep teenagers from making rash decisions. Along with the desire to
keep juveniles from making rash decisions, the surveillance given by watchful adults also
provides a form of role modeling and education that hopefully will last a lifetime.
In a recent study done by the American Psychological Association, Pam Willenz studied
whether or not juveniles had the ability to reason their way past peer pressure (Willenz, 2009).
According to the study, done in 2009 and one of several briefs used in the Roper v.
Simmons(2005), adolescents do not have the social maturity to resist peer pressure, or to attempt
to understand the consequences of their actions in a heated moment. An ironic note about the
study though: the study shows that while teens who make rash actions that truly make no sense
in hindsight, cannot be held culpable for those actions. Those same adolescents may be able to
make an informed decision to end a pregnancy, due to the slower, more thoughtful consideration
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given to such a decision. In other words the people whose lives are not at risk due to their
criminal behavior can choose how someone else’s life may end.
This theory, however, makes no mention of a certain type of mentality; sociopaths.
Sociopaths have an extreme lack of conscience, remorse, and social ability. Theories abound
about how to treat a sociopath, and these include; medication, psychotherapy, and anger-
management classes. However, no true data or survey results have ever concluded that there is a
true treatment for the anti-social disorder. Sociopaths demonstrate several early warning signs,
including articles such as; arson, cruelty to animals, showing no signs of remorse in a hurtful
situation, and etc. Using psychology and science, a recommendation should be made to the
courts to allow for a sociopathic child to be treated clinically for this disorder, or to try and keep
the juvenile under tight supervision. While something such as these proposed restrictions put
onto juveniles demonstrating severe psychopathic characteristics will never happen due to
human rights issues, the discussion may be worth opening for the safety of the public.
Returning to the topic of this section, a juvenile’s mental maturity; when one studies how
a juvenile thinks, it becomes apparent that a juvenile has a thought process that differs from that
of an adult. Juveniles are missing fundamental, mature decision making abilities such as: peer
pressure resistance, impulse control, and a delayed gratification approach. Generally, abilities
such as those listed are built up throughout the teen years, but as those abilities begin to
progressively develop later in life, or not at all, a juvenile justice system has two choices: give up
and allow this juvenile to learn criminal behavior or try to turn this juvenile into a member of
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Brain Development and Maturity
It is common knowledge that during the teenage years an adolescent is at his or her most
impressionable age. Hopefully a juvenile will have a role model, or mentor, to look up to and
emulate during these years that will give them a chance to see how a responsible member of
society will act. However, even with these role models there are many chances for a juvenile to
fail to act with regard towards the consequences of said action. So, knowing and understanding
that a juvenile is nearly a blank slate (disregarding the biological arguments and references)
acknowledges the dangers of putting a juvenile into prison or jail.
A report published by Craig Haney in 2001 studies the effects of ‘institutionalization’,
that ugly term for how a person comes to think of prison as a normal situation. The study done in
2001 may be an older than other sources quoted in this paper, however the psychological effects
of imprisonment still hold true today, and are especially prominent when discussing juveniles
and their fate and futures. These effects are listed below, and a few will be discussed in depth. It
is worth noting that the study was done on adults, not necessarily juveniles. This is worth noting
due to the highly increased impressionability of juveniles versus adults.
One develops a dependence on institutional structures and contingencies
One develops a sense of hyper vigilance, are distrustful, and highly suspiscious.
One becomes emotionally over controlled, alienated, and psychological distance
themselves from others
One withdraws from society and isolates themselves.
One begins to incorporate the exploitative norms of prison culture into their everyday
acts and thoughts.
One develops a diminished sense of self-worth, and personal value.
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One may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in relation to the pains of prison
culture. (Haney, 2001)
Doing a quick internet search, one can form an easy answer to the question ; what is a
productive, good member of society? The answer revolves around someone who is willing to
work, help the fellow citizen, learn, grow within society, enable the society to progress through
taxes and research, respect for property and ownership, and a decent mannered individual.
Examining these items, and the effects of prison culture, one can get a sense of opposites. There
is absolutely no way an emotionally over-controlled, distrustful individual can attempt to help
their fellow citizen. It is doubtful that a socially withdrawn person will try to learn and grow
within society. Sticking a juvenile into prison, with all of the criminal knowledge of the
population, almost certainly dooms that individual to a future visit to prison. Statistically a
juvenile incarcerated faces an almost fifty to seventy-five percent chance of returning to jail after
three years (Teichner, 2012) (Philanthropy News Digest, 2011).
The reasons behind the huge recidivating numbers (disregarding harsh laws for minor
crimes) is the fact that society has successfully taught a juvenile how to be a criminal. Role
models such as the people a juvenile may meet in prison are not exactly the sort to encourage
math, reading, or science. A juvenile may learn while in prison how to better hijack a car, cook
meth, or avoid the police after committing a crime, ironically. After release a juvenile (who may
now be an adult, and as such is much more culpable for his or her actions) is put back into
society with the full expectation that they begin contributing to society and their community.
Though offered in some areas, a post release reintegration program is rare for a prisoner who is
released, and so an ex-convict is left to attempt to find work, find a home, and build a law
abiding, successful, ‘good citizen’ life. Industries now routinely do background checks and don’t
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like to hire criminals, especially felons; houses are hard to come by without money; without
those two items, a law abiding life is hard to come by.
Without successful reintegration an ex-convict will almost always turn to what he or she
knows, whether that is selling drugs, stealing, or just living on the streets. A juvenile who is
introduced into prison, and then release, without some form of a reintegration program is simply
a juvenile who is taught to commit crime.
Sending a juvenile to jail, for any length of time, but especially for life without the
possibility of parole is cruel, not unusual, punishment, and costs more to the state. This statement
is based off of hours of research, and the highly respected opinions of criminal justice
representatives and expert. Sentencing a juvenile to life in prison, without a chance for parole is
similar to a death sentence. Besides planned, deliberate, and executed homicide, a juvenile
should be given the chance for parole in their sentencing.
Medical experts and criminologists have agreed the sentencing a juvenile to prison
simply does not work. Due to the overwhelming evidence that experts have access to, that all
points towards the institutionalization of juveniles imprisoned at a young age, it is extremely
cruel to imprison an adolescent. Doing so, is akin to telling the juvenile that society does not
have the time to treat them, rehabilitate them, or simply work with that juvenile. The excuse of
sending a juvenile to prison cannot be funds, because as this paper has proven it is much more
costly to send a juvenile to prison than to send them to rehabilitation classes.
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If a juvenile who is incarcerated for a length of time, recidivates, unfortunately the
individual is responsible for his or her own actions. However ,the reasoning of the second act, or
at least the motivator, can be laid at the feet of society and the law-makers themselves.
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How does California spend $49,000 per prisoner. (2010, August). Retrieved from Prison
How much does it cost to incarcerate a youth. (2010, july 10). Retrieved from US Prison
CCR. (2012, October 31). Inmate population. Retrieved from California Corrections and
CDC. (2009). Average lifespan 2009. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control:
Cost, M. (2012). Cost Analysis. Retrieved from Multisystemic Therapy:
Guerino, P., Harrison, P., & Sabol, W. (2010). 2010 Prison Population. Retrieved from
Department of Justice: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p10.pdf
Haney, C. (2001). The psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for post-prison
adjustement. Santa Cruz: University of California.
IES. (2012). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from Institute for Education
Mcleod, S. (2010, January). Cost of inmate vs. student. Retrieved from Mind Dump:
MST. (2012). What is MST. Retrieved from Multisystemic Therapy:
NCR. (2012). Nation College Ranking. Retrieved from US News:
Philanthropy News Digest. (2011). Juvenile Incarceration Provides Little Benefit, Report Finds.
Philanthropy News Digest.
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Resnick, B. (2011). Princeton vs. Prison. Retrieved from The Atlantic:
Rooney, B. (2010). Spending on prisons in rare drop. Retrieved from CNN Money:
Sivasailam, A. (2011, January). Cost of a Missouri Inmate. Retrieved from Show Me Daily:
Suede, M. (2011, September). Retrieved from Libertarian News:
Teichner, M. (2012, April 22). CBS. Retrieved from the cost of a nation of incarceration:
Willenz, P. (2009, October). Emotional maturity in adolescents lag, even though the may reason
as well as adults. Retrieved from Medical News Today: