Skip to main content
Unpublished Paper
Juvenile Crime Regulation and the Moral Panic Problem
ExpressO (2012)
  • Elizabeth S Scott, Columbia Law School

JUVENILE CRIME REGULATION AND THE MORAL PANIC PROBLEM Elizabeth S. Scott American lawmakers hold complex and somewhat inconsistent attitudes about the appropriate response to juvenile crime. The dominant contemporary view is exemplified by recent Supreme Court opinions rejecting harsh sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional; on this view, young offenders are fundamentally different from adults and their crimes are seen as the product of immaturity. But sometimes a very different view prevails-as it did in the 1990s—of juvenile offenders as dangerous criminals whose age and immaturity are irrelevant to criminal punishment. This Essay argues that the tough sentences and punitive law reforms of that period were the products of moral panics in which perceptions of the threat posed by young criminals became exaggerated through a dynamic interaction among politicians, the public and the media. In this climate, lawmaking was dominated by immediate public safety concerns that trumped society’s long term interests in effective crime reduction, efficient use of public resources, and fairness. In calmer times, deliberation is possible and these long term interests are weighed in the calculus, resulting in better decisions and policies. The challenge, then, becomes how to limit the cost of inevitable future moral panics. The Essay argues that research and theory from psychology and behavioral economics can help us in this regard, offering new insights on how perceptions of threat become exaggerated and how individuals-- and governments-- can adopt strategies to assist them in adhering to long term goals and avoiding improvident decisions. Legislatures can put in place a precommitment framework that includes substantive guidelines, procedural requirements and monitoring mechanisms, as well as restrictions that insulate prosecutors and judges from public pressure; together these reforms can promote better decisionmaking and more deliberative lawnmaking, mitigating the cost of moral panics.

Publication Date
August 7, 2012
Citation Information
Elizabeth S Scott. "Juvenile Crime Regulation and the Moral Panic Problem" ExpressO (2012)
Available at: