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Working Paper

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This essay explores the contradictions and puzzles of modern juvenile justice, and illustrates the enduring power of the child-saving philosophy of the juvenile court in an era of punitiveness toward offenders both young and old. The exponential growth in incarceration in the U.S. since the 1970s has been more restrained for juveniles than adults, even in the face of a youth violence epidemic that lasted for nearly a decade. Rhetoric has grown harsher in the wake of moral panics about youth crime, juvenile codes now express the language of retribution and incapacitation, yet the growth in incarceration of juveniles was attenuated and declined more responsively to declining crime rates. Almost no states have lowered the age of majority, even in the face of wholesale removal of juveniles to the criminal court. States have embraced the ideals and practice of small institutions, yet conditions in juvenile corrections often remain harsh and are common targets of litigation. Racial disparity still pervades juvenile incarceration, despite Congressional support of a collaborative project to reduce racial inequalities in juvenile detention and corrections. These conflicting trends portray an institutional and normative landscape that at once fears child criminals and seeks to punish them harshly, but at the same time pulls its punches as it adheres to the transcendent and enduring philosophy of child-saving.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Juvenile Law | Law


This is the author's final version. It has been accepted for publication in Daedalus, published by MIT Press.