chapter  2
37 Pages

Changing patterns of youth

ByDavid J. Smith

The juvenile justice system exists at a point of collision between competing principles. Mature adults are treated as moral beings who make choices. Children, on the other hand, are regarded as a force of nature, and not as independent moral agents. Juvenile justice is the site of conflict between these two principles. There is no well-defined rite of passage from the status of incompetent, supervised child to that of autonomous and morally responsible adult. Instead, there is the ambiguous status of youth, or adolescence. This ambiguity is central to the whole of criminal justice, because many kinds of offending peak in adolescence. We are uncertain whether to treat young offenders as morally responsible agents who are fully culpable and therefore deserve to be punished. Since around 1900, and particularly since the 1950s, new patterning of transitions from childhood to adulthood has transformed youth into something more conspicuous and at the same time more ambiguous. Because of the vast expansion of education and training, youth has become a considerably longer part of the life course. Typical adolescents have always been mature in some ways but not in others, since various transitions are negotiated at different times, but the order and timing of transitions has changed, maybe leading to increased tensions. Whereas the transition to work now comes much later than at earlier periods, first sexual experiences come much earlier. Delayed economic independence (and its implications for accessing independent housing and breaking away from parental dependency) is at odds with an increasing stress on the autonomy and distinctiveness of young people.