Saving Children, Damning Adults? An Examination of Public Support for Juvenile Rehabilitation and Adult Punishment

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Saving Children, Damning
Adults? An Examination
of Public Support for
Juvenile Rehabilitation
and Adult Punishment
Kelly Welch
, Leah Fikre Butler
, and Marc Gertz
Research shows that public preferences about justice system approaches to decreasing illegal
behavior distinguish between adult and juvenile offending. We also know that fear of crime and
perceived risk of victimization typically strengthen support for harsh punishments and reduce
support for rehabilitation. What has yet to be demonstrated—and that we examine here—is
whether there are youth-specific differences in the way that crime salience affects public support for
punitive versus rehabilitative policies and to what extent confidence in the criminal and juvenile
justice systems affects punishment orientations toward adults and juveniles. Essentially, we examine
why some Americans support “child saving” yet condemn adults. This exploratory study’s findings
indicate that while crime salience increases the likelihood that one will support harsh adult criminal
measures, it is not associated with similar attitudes toward juvenile delinquents. Further, those for
whom crime salience is lower have a greater probability of supporting rehabilitation for both
juveniles and adults. Finally, results show that support for the rehabilitation of youth persists despite
crime salience among those who are otherwise punitive toward adults. Justice ideology appears
unaffected by confidence in the justice systems. Policy implications and recommendations for future
research are offered.
juvenile justice, punitiveness, rehabilitation, crime salience, justice system confidence
It is increasingly apparent that the harsh treatment of juvenile offenders within the American justice
system comes at a steep personal, social, and financial cost. Studies have demonstrated countless
short- and long-term detrimental effects of arrest, incarceration, and solitary confinement on youth
Villanova University, Villanova, PA, USA
Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kelly Welch, Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Ave., St. Augustine Center 204, Villanova, PA 19085, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(4) 470-491
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819833141
and their communities, with little benefit (Seigle, Walsh, & Weber, 2014). Yet the juvenile justice
system (JJS) has not always been so punitive. Until recent decades, its orientation toward rehabi-
litating delinquents and “child saving” through prevention was balanced with punishment (Bernard
& Kurlychek, 2010), an attribute that has long distinguished it from the relative harshness of the
adult criminal justice system (CJS). However, during the “get-tough” movement that began in the
1980s, the public expressed greater punitiveness toward all offenders. Research has shown that
public attitudes like this can have a profound effect on public policies, including those of the justice
system (Green, 2006; Roberts, 2004), which helps to partially explain the vast expansion and
intensification of social controls during that time. Among the influences that can shape attitudes
about punishment, crime salience has an import ant effect on public punitiveness in a range of
circumstances (Bernard & Kurlychek, 2010), with concern, fear of crime, and perceived risk of
victimization exacerbating the extent to which the public prefers severe punishments over rehabi-
litation (Callanan, 2005; Mascini & Houtman, 2006). There is also reason to believe that public
confidence in the justice system’s ability to reduce crime and delinquency should affect people’s
preferences for sanctions (Simon, 2007), although the limited research assessing this relationship has
produced mixed results (Nagin, Piquero, Scott, & Steinberg, 2006; Piquero & Steinberg, 2010;
Sundt, Schwaeble, & Merritt, 2017; Unnever & Cullen, 2010). Regardless, the public has appeared
to remain more supportive of rehabilitative objectives for juveniles than it has for adults (Applegate,
Davis, & Cullen, 2008; Piquero & Steinberg, 2010; Roberts, 2004). What is unclear is why some
who are punitive toward adult criminals endorse rehabilitation for delinquents—essentially espous-
ing child saving while damning adults.
This study is the first to endeavor to account for this counterintuitive phenomenon. The funda-
mental question we begin to explore is under what circumstances do people not give up on kids, even
when they are otherwise punitive. The answer to this question may shed light on how to best convey
crime and delinquency information to the public, particularly as it may affect concerns about crime
and confidence in the justice system, in order to expand public support for more productive anti-
offending strategies. Ultimately, that support may manifest in policy changes by lawmakers. Using
multivariate analyses of national survey data, we explore the degree to which crime salience and
confidence in the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system influence the public’s orientation
toward punishment versus rehabilitation for youth and adults. The results demonstrate the importance
of assuaging both fear of crime and perceived risk of victimization for increasing public support for
rehabilitative justice, and they establish the need for a new avenue of research that would unpack why
crime salience matters. Given recent White House initiatives to turn away from rehabilitative prin-
ciples for juveniles (Pilkington, 2018) and to portray both adult and juveniles offenders as more
fearsome and less capable of reform (Bump, 2018), this line of inquiry has particular urgency.
Public Perspectives on Adult Versus Juvenile Justice
American enthusiasm for punitive criminal justice policies is now well-established. Many of the
severe anti-crime policies were implemented and sustained over the last four decades because of
politicians and their constituents who sought to declare an unofficial war on drug users, gang
members, perceived predators, and repeat “three-strikes” felons, despite consistently declining
crime rates since the mid-1990s (Simon, 2007). Until recent bipartisan endorsements of criminal
justice reform (Hulse & Steinhauer, 2015), this widely supported punitive movement brought
harsher sentencing policies that led to longer punishments and various mandatory penalties for drug
and firearm users and recidivists, among others (Enns, 2014; Ramirez, 2013). It lengthened terms of
probation, further restricted inmate activities, and applied official labels to offenders, which effec-
tively limited options for postincarcerative reform. Unsurprisingly, few supported a rehabilitative
approach to criminal justice during this get-tough period, during which policy makers and the public
Welch et al. 471

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