Dealing More Effectively with Juvenile Crime

By John G. Malcolm

Georgia’s juvenile justice system needs reform. The system is failing the citizens of Georgia and, ironically, the juveniles it is supposed to “rehabilitate.” The whole system is premised on by-gone days when children did not engage in many of the types of serious criminal behavior that are common today. The system was designed to punish “youthful indiscretions” and to send a “message” to the juvenile without stigmatizing him for life. Furthermore, it used to be believed that such youths really had no control over what they were doing since they were not old enough to really know the difference between right and wrong.

Today’s young people are exposed to far more violence and barbarity than most of us could even have imagined when we were growing up. Kids today are not smoking cigarettes or drinking beer behind the school yard; they are joining gangs and dealing crack cocaine and heroin behind the school yard, and killing others who challenge their turf or who “dis” (a street term for disrespect) them. Many of these “kids” are, in reality, hardened criminals, and the current system has failed to deal with them effectively.

  • Between 1985 and 1992, the rate at which males ages 14 to 17 committed murder increased by approximately 50% among whites and over 300% among blacks.1
  • In 1994, 18.6% of all people arrested nationwide for a crime were under the age of 18, and 6.6% were under the age of 15.2 In Georgia alone, 37,514 people under the age of 18 were arrested that year.3
  • Although, nationwide, the arrest rates for persons 18 years or older for violent crimes increased by 0.1% from 1993 to 1994, they increased by 6.5% for persons under 18, and 9.2% for persons under 15. As well, while the arrest rates for persons 18 and older for property offenses fell by 1.7% from 1993 to 1994, they were up 5.5% for persons under 18, and 6.3% for persons under 15.4

These disturbing statistics indicate that people are getting involved in a life of crime – many recruited into gangs – at an earlier and earlier age. This is particularly alarming when one considers that the number of juveniles (defined as a person age 17 or younger) is expected to increase significantly in the near future. [See Table 1].

Table 1. U.S. Juvenile Population, 1990 and projected 2010


Population Increase 1990* 2010* Number* Percent
All juveniles 64,185 73,617 9,432 15%
Ages 0-4 18,874 20,017 1,143 6%
Ages 5-9 18,064 19,722 1,658 9%
Ages 10-14 17,191 20,724 3,533 21%
Ages 15-17 10,056 13,154 3,098 31%


* in thousands

Source: Bureau of the Census, 1993, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1995; The State of Violent Crime in America (The Council on Crime in America, January 1996), Table 6.

There is a real need to treat juvenile offenses seriously and to deal with those offenses firmly the first time they occur. If juvenile crime is not dealt with strongly at the outset, today’s juvenile offender will recidivate and become tomorrow’s adult offender, and the violence will escalate.

For some, this will mean incarceration. For others, it will mean some sort of no-nonsense, treatment-type facility or the imposition of a fine or community service. Regardless, the important thing is to deal with the problem before the juvenile has the time to inculcate a criminal’s value system and habits.

For many youthful offenders, the treatment that they receive in the juvenile court system is tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Gang leaders and drug dealers, knowing this, often recruit juveniles – our children – as runners and spotters for drug deals and other forms of illicit activity.

By not imposing some form of appropriate punishment the very first time a transgression occurs, our society sends the message that it is prepared to tolerate lawlessness, that the criminal justice system does not mean what it says. The “tough love” approach may well prevent an impressionable youth from embarking on a life of crime and may save the lives of future victims as well as, possibly, his own.

Another problem with the juvenile system involves gathering information and maintaining juvenile records. Although the Georgia Legislature recently amended the law to make it easier for juvenile offenders to be photographed and fingerprinted, and made it more likely that the records of juveniles who have committed particularly heinous crimes will follow them into adulthood, it is still too easy for many juvenile offenders, especially those age 12 and under, to “wipe the slate clean” by having their records expunged, even if they committed heinous crimes such as rape and murder.

Table 2. Teenagers and the fear of violent crime


  White Teens Black Teens
How much of the time do you worry about being the victim of a crime?
A lot or some of the time 36% 54%
Hardly ever or never 64% 46%
What kind of crime do you think is likely to happen to you?
Robbery/mugging 13% 10%
Shooting 5% 27%
Assault 6% 7%
Rape 7% 2%
Other 2% 3%
Who do you think is more likely to commit that crime against you?
Teenager you know 7% 11%
Teenager you don’t know 18% 37%
An adult 9% 4%
Do you know someone who has been shot in the past five years?
Yes 31% 70%


Source: New York Times, July 10, 1994, p. 16, based on New York Times/CBS News Poll; The State of Violent Crime in America (The Council on Crime in America, January 1996), Table 8.

Sadly, many juveniles under 12 commit such crimes. Equally sad, many of these so-called youthful offenders commit crimes when they are adults. Under the current system, when this adult offender commits a crime, it may appear to the judge who is sentencing him that the defendant is a first-time offender, when in fact he may be an experienced criminal with a violent past.

While nobody wishes to forever tarnish a juvenile offender who truly turns over a new leaf, the juvenile offender who continues his nefarious ways into adulthood is not deserving of such forgiving treatment. The law should be amended so that once an adult offender is convicted of a crime, his juvenile records should automatically and irrevocably be unsealed. That way, the sentencing judge and all law enforcement personnel in the future will have a more accurate picture of the individual in question. The antisocial acts of this individual can no longer be attributed to “youthful indiscretion,” and he should be treated as the hardened criminal that he has unfortunately become.

John G. Malcolm is a former Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a member of the Board of Governors of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an nonprofit,  nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 12, 1997). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.