“How does a kid wind up in jail for an unmade bed? Ironically, the answer lies in the primary goal of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation. So that young people have a chance at changing their behavior, juvenile court judges are given great discretion in sentencing. Court proceedings are more informal than those for adults. Juveniles’ misdeeds are “petitioned” at a hearing rather than prosecuted at a trial. Instead of being found guilty, kids are “delinquent”—language that implies a state both psychological and changeable. Juveniles can also be charged with infractions known as “status offenses,” so named because the person’s status as a minor is the single factor that makes his or her actions illegal. Running away from home is a status offense. So is skipping school or missing curfew. Once a kid is roped into the system, she can be drawn in again and again for minor violations of her probation. The flexibility in the system means kids have greater opportunities to reform, but it also means judges have a lot of leeway to inflict arbitrary and extreme punishment for, say, an attitude problem.”
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