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The Binary Way of Thinking and The Juvenile Justice System in America

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When thinking about the issues regarding the recriminalization of delinquency, the idea of binary legal categories often comes up. Lawmakers “tend to think of childhood and adulthood as binary categories”(Scott 61). With this way of thinking, adolescence gets treated as part of childhood and teenagers and toddlers are grouped together as legal children and are “subject… to the same paternalistic treatment” (61). Scott and Steinberg go on to discuss how there is thought to be a legal line, the age of eighteen for most purposes, that signals that an individual is “an autonomous person who is responsible for their conduct and choices and who no longer needs special protection” (62). When using this way of binary thinking, adolescents are either considered to be on the childhood side or on the adulthood side. There is no thought of them as being in the middle of these two categories. In these terms, “lawmakers tend to… depict teenagers either as immature children… or as mature adults… depending on the policy or agenda at hand” (69). There is no balance found when deciding the legal fate of juvenile offenders.

This binary way thinking when categorizing people in terms of legal thinking creates a conundrum. If juvenile offenders are treated like children, that excuses their behaviors and shows them no legal repercussions. If these offenders are treated like adults, that fails to take into consideration the various differences between adults and adolescents. There needs to be a gray area or a place in the middle that is met. I agree with Scott and Steinberg’s decision that adolescents should be treated more harshly than children and less harshly than if they were adults. Their developmental model “holds that adolescents are responsible for their criminal conduct and should be sanctioned for their misdeeds but deserve less punishment than do typical adult offenders” (19). Juvenile offenders, especially those guilty of violent crimes, need to be held responsible for their actions, but should not be sent immediately to criminal court.

The main question at hand is whether adolescent offenders should be treated as deemed in the binary legal categories or if those categories themselves should be rethought. I believe that eliminating the binary way of thinking is the best way to handle juvenile offenders. Adolescents are not children who should be excused from punishment, but they do differ from adults. They have an immaturity of judgment that adults do not and this affects adolescent decision making. As Scott and Steinberg described, adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence, are less likely to consider long term consequences, and have a difference in risk assessment (38-40). There needs to be a use of the juvenile justice system to treat these offenders. Sending them to criminal court to be tried as adults is unfair and does not take into account the differences between these two age groups. Likewise, treating adolescent offenders as children who are not punished for crimes is problematic. This leaves society unprotected and will also help to feed into moral panic. Finding a balance between these two issues is solved by submitting adolescent offenders to the juvenile justice system. Dismantling the binary way of thinking when dealing with juvenile offenders will help lead us to the best way of dealing with these issues.

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The Binary Way of Thinking and the Juvenile Justice System in America. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from
“The Binary Way of Thinking and the Juvenile Justice System in America.” GradesFixer, 26 Oct. 2018,
The Binary Way of Thinking and the Juvenile Justice System in America. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2022].
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