Juvenile Offenders

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The topic of juvenile offenders being tried and punished as adults is a very touchy subject. Some people support the idea and many are opposed to it. Suppose two young teens age 14 get into an altercation and one decides to stab the other in the heat of the moment. This teen has committed a crime and should get punished for his or her actions. The question is whether the youth should get tried and punished in Juvenile Court or Criminal Court as an adult?

When children commit crimes such as murder, does that automatically make them adults? This is the question in which supporters ask. Or do children maintain some bits and pieces of childhood and innocence, regardless of the severity of their actions? This is what those in opposition question. Does one or two years younger than eighteen make much of a difference? Is it fair for one person, just seventeen years of age or younger to be tried in juvenile court, receiving a lesser sentence than someone who is just a few years older who committed the same crime? I believe juveniles who commit heinous crimes just like adults, should be charged as adults. No one should be exempt from punishment. A crime is a crime and for that reason, juveniles who commit violent crimes should suffer the same consequences. This paper will discuss the history and purpose of the juvenile justice system and the pros and cons of trying juvenile offenders as adults.

History of the juvenile justice system

“Throughout the late 18th century, “infants” below the age of reason (traditionally seven years old) were presumed to be incapable of criminal intent and were, therefore, exempt from prosecution and punishment. Children as young as seven years old, however, could stand trial in criminal court for offenses committed and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to prison or even to death.” (Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice). The juvenile court started more than a hundred years ago, it was created based on the idea that juvenile offenders shouldn’t go through the adult criminal courts. The first juvenile court was formed in 1899 in Illinois. The juvenile court was created to handle juvenile delinquents based on their adolescence rather than the actual crimes committed. The purpose was to focus on the child or adolescent as a person that was in need of support and not on the action that brought him or her before the court. In juvenile court, minors are not charged with crimes, they are more so charged with wrongdoings/ misconducts. In court children were not looked at being guilty, they were judged as someone who made a mistake and committed a dreadful crime. The juvenile system was not created to send the youth to prison. It sent them to a training school, a rehabilitation program or reformatory.

How were proceedings conducted?

Juvenile court proceedings were very much relaxed and easygoing. It was not suspenseful like Criminal Court. In Juvenile Court, the decision was usually left to the juvenile court judge. The duty of the judge was to act in the best interest of the child. The normal procedures that were required and available to adults, such as the right to an attorney, the right to know the charges brought against one, and the right to trial by jury were considered unnecessary in juvenile court. Court proceedings for the youth were closed to the public and their records were to remain confidential. The reason being was to prevent an interference with the child’s ability to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Changes in the juvenile system

During the 1980s and 1990s, the public called for getting tough with juveniles and trying them as adults. Because of an increase to violent crimes committed by juveniles, many started to push for state legal reforms in juvenile justice system, which would punish juveniles tougher for serious crimes, rather than stick to the traditional rehabilitation approach. In Trying Juveniles as Adults in Criminal Court: An Analysis of State Transfer Provisions, Patricia Torbet and Linda Szymanski states that “This change in emphasis from a focus on rehabilitating the individual to punishing the act is exemplified by the seventeen states that redefined the purpose clause of their juvenile courts to emphasize public safety, certainty of sanctions, and offender accountability.” This change in the system was brought about by belief that many saw the juvenile justice system as being too soft on delinquents, who are thought to be potentially as much a threat to public safety as adult criminals.

“In many jurisdictions, teenagers commit as many as ten to fifteen serious crimes before anything is done to them. It is amazing how ancient, archaic, and broken down the juvenile justice system.”(Jeffrey A. Butts, Adele V. Harrell, Pg.9). Because children are young they get away with murder. They get multiple chances to learn from their mistakes, but some commit numerous violent crimes because they know they will get a light sentencing. The youth is wiser than we think. To many teens, getting arrested is cool to them. Many youths are in and out of juvie constantly and they are not learning from their previous mistakes. It is because the juvenile system is too soft on teens why some choose to take advantage of it.

Impact of Supreme Court cases on the juvenile justice system

Issues arising from juvenile delinquency proceedings hardly ever come before the U.S. Supreme Court. Beginning in the late 1960’s, however, the Court decided a series of landmark cases that dramatically changed the character and procedures of the juvenile justice system. (Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice). The 1999 National Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice describes a series of cases that made juvenile court more like criminal court, but still maintained some differences. Breed v. Jones 421 U.S. 519, 95 S.Ct. 1779 (1975) concluded that a waiver of a juvenile to criminal court following adjudication in juvenile court constitutes double jeopardy. In 1970, Gary Jones whom was seventeen years old, was charged with armed robbery. He was adjudicated delinquent on the original charge and two other robberies. Jones’s attorney filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the waiver to criminal court violated the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment. Upon appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an adjudication in juvenile court, in which a juvenile is found to have violated a criminal statute, is equivalent to a trial in criminal court.

In re Winship 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068 (1970) the court decided that in delinquency matters, the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Twelve year old Samuel Winship, was charged with stealing $112 from a woman’s purse in a store. A store employee claimed to have seen Winship running from the scene just before the woman noticed the money was missing; others in the store stated that the employee was not in a position to see the money being taken. He was adjudicated delinquent and committed to a training school. At the time New York juvenile courts operated under the civil court standard of a “preponderance of evidence.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “reasonable doubt” standard should be required in all delinquency adjudications.

In the case of McKeiver v. Pennsylvania 403 U.S. 528, 91 S.Ct. 1976 (1971) it was held that jury trials are not constitutionally required in juvenile court hearings. Joseph McKeiver, age sixteen, was charged with robbery, larceny, and receiving stolen goods. He and about twenty to thirty other youth allegedly chased three youth and took twenty-five cents from them. At the hearing, his attorney’s request for a jury trial was denied by the court. He was adjudicated and placed on probation. The State Supreme Court affirmed the lower court, arguing that of all due process rights, trial by jury is most likely to “destroy the traditional character of juvenile proceedings.” The U.S. Supreme Court found that the due process clause of the Fourteenth amendment did not require jury trials in juvenile court. As a result, these cases were the start of a change in the juvenile system from when it was first introduced.

Pros of trying Juveniles as adults

What are some pros of trying juveniles as adults? It is argued that trying juveniles as adults will decrease crimes committed by the youth. Children may start thinking more carefully about their crimes, knowing they could receive adult sentence. The result of a heinous crime remains the same, no matter who commits it, whether it is an adolescence or an adult. Perpetrators should be held accountable and responsible for their actions. When kids get punitive sentencing, it acts as a warning to kids who are considering committing crimes. Light sentences do not teach the youth the lesson they need to learn. Kids today are more sophisticated at a younger age; they understand the implications of violence and how to use violent weapons. It is absurd to argue that a modern child, who sees the effect of violence around him in the news every day, does not understand what killing really is. The fact that child killers know how to load and shoot a gun is an indicator that they understand exactly what they’re doing. Charging the youth as adults can possibly help reduce gang related crimes. Gang members tend to use teenagers to commit their crimes because they know that they will receive a lighter sentence than if they were to do it themselves. It is unfair for gang members to take advantage of young children, but punishing teens as adults for the same crime adults commit will send a message to gang members that they can no longer use teens to do their dirty work.

Cons of trying Juveniles as adults

Many experts believe that trying juveniles as adults will only make matters worse. They feel that the juvenile prison system can help kids turn their lives around. Instead of trying adolescents as adults, rehabilitation helps to give the youth a second chance. Why rehabilitation? Rehabilitation is better for society in the long run than releasing someone who’s spent their entire young adult life in general prison population. It is said that teenagers who are released from juvenile prison is far less likely to commit a crime than someone who was released from an adult facility. Another point that some argue is that children do not have the intellectual or moral capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. Recent Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s. The studies suggest that the brain’s prefrontal lobe, which some scientists speculate plays a crucial role in inhibiting inappropriate behavior, may not reach full development until age 20. (Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. The Journal of Adolescent Health??: Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216221.) In addition, children should not be able to get access to deadly weapons and adults who make guns easily accessible to them should be held accountable as well.

Ways to prevent juvenile crimes

How can we prevent juveniles from committing serious crimes that will land them in jail? Two ways I feel juvenile crimes can be prevented and keep teens from becoming incarcerated are to make access to handguns less accessible to the youth and to improve education for youth in poor communities. I believe these two options will be a start to keep the youth out trouble and to prevent them from being charged as adults when they commit serious crimes.

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