Imagine if your child was formally held accountable for an alleged offense within the juvenile court system. During this process, as a result of state law (to your surprise), the general public is granted access to the hearings.
Within the proceedings, evidence reveals that your child was indirectly involved in an offense as a result of being manipulated by others. Your child is then humiliated because the details of the testimony is disclosed in the court of public opinion.
This scenario is evidence of the existence and efficacy of media coverage within juvenile hearings. This topic has been well documented within literature on the U.S. juvenile justice and legal systems. In fact, one study reveals that states have a variety of legal allowances related to media access to juvenile hearings. For instance, only 30 percent of states have closed hearings and at least one state (Illinois) provides media-based access to juvenile court hearings in spite of disallowing public access.
Support for media access to juvenile court hearings stems from viewpoints related to accountability, societal perceptions and legal precedent. For those who argue that media exposure to juvenile proceedings results in increased levels of conscientiousness, foresight and personal responsibility among youth, I have yet to discover research that supports such assumptions.
As for media access strengthening accountability among attorneys, judges and law clerks, there should already be measures within the system to provide checks and balances.
Some argue that the general public should be enlightened about the process and that media exposure will do so. My response is to encourage those sincerely interested to enroll in a college course to gain a comprehensive understanding of the juvenile justice system. Exposure to context, such as in a college course, is essential; without such, misinformation and faulty interpretation is likely to occur.
Proponents of media exposure also suggest that such measures may lead to enhanced levels of victim participation in the juvenile court process. Studies suggest that various state laws already afford numerous conditional stipulations that allow victims access to juvenile proceedings.
Furthermore, victim participation may lead to public humiliation and stigmatization for the victim and their families. Research does exist about the potential aspects of victim participation within the context of adult hearings, but I have yet to discover any corresponding evidence related to juvenile hearings.
Finally, supporters of media exposure also point to the First Amendment (i.e., freedom of press), which is often based upon its legal use within adult proceedings. Considering that youth are fundamentally different from adults, does this legal precedent adequately and fairly apply to juvenile hearings?
Reasons associated with opposition to media access to juvenile courts also exist. This includes the potential impact of such access on the youth’s well-being, such as negative labeling as well as impediments to rehabilitation.
Comparably, closed hearings offer key advantages for youth. This includes, but is not limited to: 1) the promotion of valid and honest exchange of information, 2) the minimization of outside influences (political, etc.) in relation to the juvenile court hearing process, and 3) fostering a nonadversarial atmosphere within the hearing that is consistent with the parens patrie (government as legal protector) philosophy.
As Congress considers the prospect of strengthening the JJDPA through the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act (HR 5963), it is my hope that the core principles of the juvenile justice system are upheld, especially those that are geared toward the overall well-being of youth by reaffirming the concepts of confidentiality and hope as opposed to public suspicion or societal fears.
Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is assistant professor of criminal justice at Savannah State University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”