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Forensic aspects of juvenile violence.

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Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA.


The juvenile justice system was created because it was recognized that youthful offenders needed to be managed differently from adults. They were to receive habilitation services instead of punishment. It is now more than a century since the creation of the first juvenile court. After 67 years, the US Supreme Court, in Kent v United States stated that the model was not working because juveniles in the criminal justice system received no treatment and they had no rights. Because the issue that had been appealed was the lack of rights (not lack of treatment), the Court mandated that juveniles, like adults, be given certain rights. The following year, in In re Gault, the Court expanded these rights. Subsequent Supreme Court cases have dealt with these kinds of issues--that is, whether juvenile offenders are entitled to the same rights as adults and subject to the same penalties. The Supreme Court has never heard a "right to treatment" case, which is the other part of the juvenile court system. Cases have been brought in lower courts (e.g., Nelson v. Heyne, 1972) alleging inadequate treatment services, but no national impact has resulted. Thus, in general, children in the juvenile court system do not have an enforceable right to treatment and can obtain only what services are available in their jurisdictions. The services often are woefully inadequate. Sentencing a youth to probation, with the requirement that he or she participate in counseling or mental health treatment, is meaningless if services are not available. Community-based, model programs that provide effective treatment do exist. They are, as yet, the rare exception rather than the norm and, therefore, are not available to most youthful offenders. Incarcerated juveniles, obviously, cannot avail themselves of community programs. Litigation to give these youth the same rights as adults in penal institutions is not the answer because incarcerated adults don't have a right to treatment, only a right to be free from "deliberate indifference" to their medical needs. It is hoped that a way will be found to provide effective services for the juvenile delinquent population. Federal laws have been enacted to mandate special services for educationally handicapped children. Those statutes, and litigation based on them, have led to some improvements for that group of children. Perhaps the same can be accomplished for the youthful offender population. Mandatory early intervention will serve them far better than mandatory waiver to adult court or incarceration in adult prison.

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