Youthfulness Responsibility and Punishment

AuthorAaron Kupchik
Published date01 April 2004
DOI10.1177/1462474504041259
Date01 April 2004
Subject MatterJournal Article
02 Kupchik (jr/t) 20/2/04 1:19 pm Page 149
Copyright © SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks, CA
and New Delhi.
www.sagepublications.com
1462-4745; Vol 6(2): 149–173
DOI: 10.1177/1462474504041259
PUNISHMENT
& SOCIETY
Youthfulness,
responsibility and
punishment

Admonishing adolescents in criminal court
AARON KUPCHIK
Arizona State University, School of Justice Studies, USA
Abstract
This article describes interaction in a criminal (adult) court in which adolescents are
punished. As a result of the particular set of courtroom dynamics and the youthfulness
of the defendants in this court, two potentially conflicting ideas about punishment are
expressed concurrently: (1) proportionality, and (2) reduced culpability among youth.
I demonstrate how judges talk to adolescent defendants during sentencing in ways that
simultaneously communicate the defendants’ criminal responsibility and their youth-
fulness. In doing so, judges admonish the adolescents. The delivery of this admonish-
ment is a ceremonial event that bears some similarities to the degradation rituals
described by Harold Garfinkel, and also to the reintegration ceremonies described by
John Braithwaite. Yet the admonishment varies from both of these events in that it is
a more practical adaptation to the particular constraints of punishing adolescents in a
criminal court. Thus I illustrate how judges strategically use admonishing discourse to
solve intractable problems that arise from the circumstances of this court.
Key Words
admonishment • degradation • jurisdictional transfer • sentencing • youthfulness
This article describes interaction between judges and defendants in a criminal (adult)
court in which adolescents are punished. I use a case study to demonstrate how judges
talk to adolescent defendants during sentencing in ways that simultaneously communi-
cate the defendants’ criminal responsibility and their youthfulness. I illustrate how
judges’ use of admonishing discourse strategically solves the intractable problems that
arise from the circumstances of this court, such as the problem of balancing propor-
tionality in sentencing with the reduced culpability of adolescents. Furthermore, the
admonishment conforms to judges’ desired treatment of a problematic population of
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PUNISHMENT AND SOCIETY 6(2)
defendants. The delivery of this admonishment is a ceremonial event that bears some
similarities to the degradation rituals described by Harold Garfinkel (1956), and also
to the reintegration ceremonies described by John Braithwaite (1989). Yet the
admonishment varies from both of these events in that it is a more practical adaptation
to the particular constraints of punishing adolescents in a criminal court.
My research takes place in a criminal court that specializes in offenders younger than
16 who are excluded from juvenile court to be tried and punished as adults. This practice
of prosecuting youth in criminal courts rather than juvenile courts is a growing one. In
recent years, almost every state in the USA has revised its laws to redefine some juveniles
as adults and prosecute them in criminal, rather than juvenile, courts1 (Snyder and
Sickmund, 1999). But punishing adolescents as if they were adults creates an awkward
combination of pursuing substantively rational ‘juvenile justice’ concerns within a
formally rational criminal court environment (Weber, 1968; see Kupchik, 2003). Judges
responsible for sentencing these adolescents are faced with two significant dilemmas:
judging the level of culpability of adolescents for their criminal offenses, and deciding
how to balance the competing objectives of allowing youth second chances while
punishing offenders for their crimes. As I show, these competing objectives are dealt
with by strategic uses of discourse. My analysis focuses on how these particular dilemmas
give rise to patterns of speaking to adolescent defendants in ways that communicate
both responsibility and youthfulness.
Prior research on judicial discourse illustrates how judges speak to defendants in ways
that help judges achieve professional goals. For example, court ethnographies by Carlen
(1976) and Feeley (1979) demonstrate how judges use language that is unintelligible
to defendants in order to communicate the defendant’s low status and encourage rapid
disposition of cases. Carlen’s analogy of the court as a dramaturgical arena aptly char-
acterizes how court actors stage a show in order to validate and facilitate their social
control function. Similarly, Feeley’s functional analysis of lower criminal courts shows
how courts’ treatment of defendants and court actors’ language maximize the likelihood
of defendants pleading guilty to avoid further case processing. Harold Garfinkel (1956),
in his classic article on degradation ceremonies, illustrates how courts legitimate the
imposition of punishment by degrading defendants; as a defendant’s status is lowered
from citizen to enemy of the people, it becomes clear that the court has no choice but
to punish. By invoking moral indignation at defendants, courts are able to reinforce
group solidarity. Degradation ceremonies therefore are rituals that support the func-
tioning of courts and fortify broader social cohesion.
In his work on juvenile courts, Robert Emerson (1969) echoes this theme. He finds
that courts routinely denounce juvenile defendants in order to legitimate punishment.
This process is part of the routine functioning of juvenile courts as they establish their
moral superiority over defendants, but it takes an extreme form when courts hand out
harsh punishment such as imprisonment.
This article contributes to this body of literature by applying the study of strategic
judicial discourse to a novel research setting with a contemporary research problem. The
above studies demonstrate how criminal court and juvenile court actors speak to defen-
dants, but in each case the mission of the court is fairly clear – they each seek to punish
defendants and augment the court’s legitimacy in doing so. The one exception to this
is Emerson’s (1969) work. By studying juvenile courts Emerson focuses on a court
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KUPCHIK
Youthfulness, responsibility and punishment
system faced with a dual mission of social control and social welfare (see also Platt,
1977; Feld, 1999). But by the 1960s juvenile courts had instituted practices and policies
for dealing with this dual goal. As Emerson (1969) clearly shows, the juvenile court he
studied was in the center of a well-developed web of social welfare and social control
agencies with intricate and dependent ties to one another.
In contrast, I study a court without precedent, clearly articulated goals or established
practices for resolving competing concerns of punishment and child-saving. This court
is a specialized criminal court that deals almost exclusively with 14- and 15-year-old
defendants who are excluded from juvenile court due to the severity of their offenses.
Because it is a criminal court that deals with such young defendants, this court strad-
dles the boundary between juvenile and criminal justice (Kupchik, 2003). It therefore
poses a unique structural problem – the need to appear punitive while dealing with
adolescents – and offers a novel research site.
METHODS
I conducted2 this research in what is referred to as a specialized criminal ‘youth part’
court in New York City. New York’s laws mandate that adolescents accused of certain
offenses are excluded from juvenile court to be prosecuted as adults. I describe this statu-
tory context and the conditions that bring about this specialized court in the next
section.
The data consist of observations of courtroom proceedings and interviews with
judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in this court.3 Over the course of six months
I observed 290 hearings, including 124 sentencing hearings, 145 regularly scheduled
hearings to discuss the status of cases and 21 hearings in which defendants pled guilty.
Rather than scheduling visits to the court to follow particular cases from beginning to
end (which can take years for completion), I attended all court ‘calendar’ days; calendar
days are days during which all cases not on trial are regularly scheduled. By attending
these days I was able to observe cases in each phase of case processing, from beginning
to end. I also observed two trials.
I sat beside the judge – in the witness’ chair – during many of these hearings, where
I observed and noted ‘off-the-record’ conferences at the judge’s bench in addition to
‘on-the-record’ proceedings. None of the court participants ever acknowledged my
presence next to the judge (either verbally or through physical gestures), and I remained
silent during all hearings. Thus it is unlikely that my presence interfered with the
content or interaction of these hearings.4 Additionally, I attended meetings held by the
judge with members of the probation office, correctional facilities, the District
Attorney’s office and with representatives from treatment programs working with the
court.
To further assess courtroom dynamics in this court, I interviewed the judge, super-
vising prosecutor and defense attorneys who work in this court. I also interviewed
similar court actors from a second ‘youth part’ court (see later) in New York City, for
a total of 15 interviews. During these interviews I asked many open-ended questions
followed by probes to explore themes, as well as closed-ended questions that required
respondents to answer questions using...

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