Presenting Juveniles as Adults in the Criminal Justice System

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The word most frequently used to describe the growth in the rate of violent crime among children 17 years old and younger is epidemic. The alarming rate at which children are committing crimes has increased the amount of questions on what should be done with these juveniles. The National Center for Juvenile Justice states how “Every state but Hawaii now allows juveniles to be tried as adults for certain crimes,” so why are people struggling with laws allowing young offenders to be tried as adults? (Juvenile Justice) They are children, and the lack of maturity and brain development can produce risky, impulsive behavior, and should be treated rather than persecuted and written off.

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In the law, a juvenile is defined as a person who is not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts. In most states and on the federal level, this age threshold is set at 18 years. However, Wyoming considers juveniles as being under 19. In other states a juvenile is a person under the age of 17, and in Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina, a juvenile is a person under the age of 16 (Allen). These ages are set in place by states to determine if a young adult, who has committed a crime, will either be tried in an adult court or a juvenile one. There are three categories juvenile courts rule on concerning children: ones accused of a crime, children neglected or abused by their parents, and children accused of a status offense. Offences such as truancy, running away from home, and the purchasing of alcohol, tobacco, and pornography are considered status offences because they only apply to a specific class, in this case being minors (Allen).

The goals of juvenile courts are much different from that of adult courts. Ordering punishment is not the primary goal of juvenile courts. Instead, they respond to juveniles by ordering rehabilitative measures or assistance from government agencies (Allen). The juvenile court’s responses to crimes are generally more lenient than the adult court response. Juvenile court proceedings are held in private, whereas adult court proceedings are public affairs. Also, the offense committed and the punishment is the focus of adult courts, whereas juvenile courts focus on the child, and helping them through rehabilitation, supervision, and treatment (Allen). Harry Allen describes in his book how, “Adult courts may deprive adults of their liberty only for the violation of criminal laws, and juvenile courts are empowered to control and confine juveniles based on a broad range of behavior and circumstances” (Allen).

One issue is determining whether children have the capacity to commit such gruesome crimes. How does a child even know how to murder someone, or rape a person? Many children show early signs of being capable of committing future violent crimes. However the American Psychology Association reports that “…the part of the brain that is responsible for good judgment and the control of impulses—the pre-frontal cortex—is still immature; consequently, children of this age-period, don’t have yet the capacity to fully control their impulses” (Goldman).

In adolescence, the brain still has much capacity for growth, and may indicate that troubled teenagers can still learn restraint, judgment, and empathy (Glueck). Adolescence is a time of great change in the brain. An adolescent’s tendency to leap before looking is due to the fact that teenage brain seeks out new experiences, including situations that are dangerous. There are contrasting opinions on psychological and biological theories of delinquency that seek to explain criminal behavior in terms of the individual (Glueck). The sociological perspective of delinquency generally regards it as a “normal” response and holds that all persons have the potential and the opportunity to commit delinquent or criminal acts (Glueck).

As teens mature, their frontal lobes mature, and during this maturation the limbic system lags creating such impulsive, risky behavior as doing drugs and driving reckless (Myers). It is not that teens underestimate such risks instead of overweighing the benefits. Most psychologists would agree that the frontal lobes do not mature till about age twenty-five, which would suggest that under the law, even legal adults at the age of eighteen to twenty-five are not cognitively mature enough to prevent risky, impulsive behavior. In 2004, the American Psychological Association joined seven other medical and mental health associations in filing U.S. Supreme Court briefs, arguing against the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds (Myers). The briefs documented the teen brain’s immaturity “in areas that bear upon adolescent decision-making.” Teens are “less guilty by reason of adolescence,” and in 2005, by a 5-to-4 margin, the Court declared juvenile death penalties unconstitutional (Myers).

How does the justice system determine which young offenders were unaware of their actions, and which ones committed them on purpose and in full awareness of their actions? That should be up to a jury to decide. A case should be presented with evidence, testimonies, and experts to determine whether guilt is present. If the party is guilty then a sentence should be given, but trials, and the criminal system, are designed for adults, not children.

“Prosecuting juveniles as adults undermines the justice system” (Young, and Gainsborough). Judges and lawyers lack the patients and training to listen to children during an adult criminal trail. These issues in adult courts allow for predisposed disadvantages for children tried in the same court. Psychologists have seen these disadvantages throughout each stage of the trial process, and it is mostly due to their lack of capacity to understand the trial process and legal rights (Young, and Gainsborough).

At arrest, children can become nervous talking to authority figures and will readily confess in detail to police. They tend to confess to more than they are responsible for, and “young girls involved with older boys or men will protect their male accomplices by taking on more responsibility than was in fact theirs.” (Young, and Gainsborough). Children are not the best at retelling events with specific times on a consistent basis, so their accounts can seem to contradict themselves if asked to retell and may look bad in front of a judge or jury (Young, and Gainsborough).

At bail hearings, the judge asks questions in a adult court in order to set a bond amount, but such questions are not appropriate for children, who are rarely employed, do not own property, and frequently lack “”ties to the community”” (Young, and Gainsborough). The bail amount judges set may be considered low for an adult with a full-time job, but may be unattainable for a child and will most likely remain in jail on these low bonds (Young, and Gainsborough).

At preliminary hearings, the crowdedness of an adult court can intimidate a child, and multiple clients usually distract assigned counsel. Because children are left in crowded lockups, their first interviews usually only last a couple of minutes. Children are usually not able to prioritize the type of facts that attorneys need in order to begin their cases (Young, and Gainsborough).

In preparing for trial, children have difficulty sorting out certain facts that their counsel needs to defend their case such as names and addresses. They also tend to leave out information that they think will look bad and over-exaggerate whatever they think helps, and are almost always wrong as to which is which. They tend to protect parents or elders; sometimes tell stories to picture the outcome of the situation the way they wanted it to happen. Most attorneys lack the time and patients required, as it takes much more time interviewing children for trial preparation than for adults (Young, and Gainsborough).

At trial, during cross-examination, the children have to testify, and can be easily led, and make awful witnesses. They are taken advantage of by the prosecutor’s focus on prior inconsistent statements, mistakes in language, and desire to protect friends and family (Young, and Gainsborough). Malcolm Young describes in his assessment how during the trial process “The very rules of evidence that work to get at the truth for adults may obscure the truth when children speak in their own defense” (Young, and Gainsborough).

In plea negotiations, with the lack of understanding most children have with the aspects of court proceedings as it is, asking them to either accept or decline a plea offer is not far from cruel. Plea deals come with long-term consequences, which children have difficulty grasping, such as going against probation terms, and usually see the deal as a means of getting out of these proceedings quickly and going home (Young, and Gainsborough). The significance of a sentence of months or years in prison might not register with a child because of short-term thinking, and merely see the desire to get out of prison as soon as possible (Young, and Gainsborough).

At sentencing, even though the child may have less serious charges, they are at a disadvantage in an adult court because probation officers and those who recommend a sentence are more familiar with programs that work for adults, and generally not educated on children’s needs (Young, and Gainsborough).

The best option for juvenile offenders are to treat them with the help needed in a facility, because there is too much going against the child when tried in an adult court (Brenda). A study in Florida compared recidivism rates, or rate at which an offender recommits a crime, for a select few of young offenders, based on the number and seriousness of their past and current offenses while accounting for sociodemographic characteristics, and found that juveniles sentenced and freed from an adult system were more likely to recommit a crime, to reoffend sooner, commit more crimes, and more serious offenses than juveniles taking to a juvenile facility (Brenda). In Pennsylvania, a study of more than 500 juveniles found that youths transferred to be tried in an adult court are more likely to be convicted, and their recidivism rates are higher than those who remained in juvenile court. A study was conducted in New York and New Jersey comparing 15-16-year olds charged with robbery, and concluded that the New York juveniles whose cases went to adult criminal courts were more likely to reoffend and to reoffend sooner than the New Jersey juveniles whose cases were heard in juvenile court (Brenda).

As one can see, looking at each type of side, programs that provide intensive community and family-based interventions, with delinquents who have committed violent crimes as well as substance abusing juvenile offenders, have demonstrated reduced crime, and savings to the states having to house all of these criminals (Brenda). Such programs as “Multisystemic Therapy” and “Multidemensional Treatment Foster Care” have been shown to drastically reduce the rate at which children are being charged, the rate at which chronic offenders are using dangerous drugs compared to juveniles not participating in programs, and the cost is far less than forcing the child to be tried and convicted in an adult court (Young, and Gainsborough).

What these programs really try to deal with is the lack of proper upbringing these juveniles usually have. Rehabilitation Today describes how many studies show how many adult criminals in prison were once juvenile offenders (Thomas). Articles such as “Juvenile Rehabilitation for Delinquent Children” by Dr. Sarah Thomas suggest that because adult criminals were once delinquents this issue with juveniles need to be treated early as a means of prevention or could lead to more serious issues (Thomas). These rehabilitation programs are not child prisons, they are a means of correcting criminal tendencies these children have, and reteach them the difference between right and wrong. Many programs attempt to involve the child’s parents so to try and instill those morals that were overlooked at home (Thomas). Involving the parents also allows an easier transition back into society as a responsible, honest adult in the community. There are no real set of rules to juvenile rehabilitation, and as Dr. Thomas puts it “rehabilitation is an art, not a science” (Thomas). Meaning every juvenile’s case is different, and needs to be looked at as a unique situation (Thomas). Many juveniles will say that the reason they committed their crime was because they feel they do not belong, or do not matter to anyone, and this is why experts say the quicker a child is reached, the better and less likely they will commit a crime (Thomas). Dr. Thomas says that juvenile programs should not focus on a way to cut costs by keeping the number of prison inmates low, but focus on budgeting for such alternative juvenile programs. If more went toward these programs, there would not be the constant need to even discuss whether to try young offenders as adults. There has to be a belief that these juveniles can change, and effectively transform their lives as productive members of society (Thomas). The earlier these programs can reach out, the less likely children will commit, and will result in reduction in juvenile cases, as well as less adult criminals. These children will be the ones who create our future, so why not give them help and reform when they begin to drive down the wrong path as a way to get them back on the right one (Thomas). Reteach the child to not do wrong, instead of assuming they can never learn.

The continuing cries to send more children into the adult criminal justice system is a radical rethinking of the past views that delinquent children need help to turn their lives around and belong in a program that focuses primarily on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Remarkably, the nation-wide transformation to this more unreasonable approach is taking place despite the growing proof in the effectiveness of rehabilitative programs (Brenda). As the number of juvenile cases heard in criminal court increases, more people involved in the system are recognizing that adult courts are inappropriate and unjust settings for children whose developmental immaturity puts them at a disadvantage at every stage in the system. There is mounting evidence of the long-term and damaging consequences that children suffer from being imprisoned in adult prisons and jails (Steinberg). Furthermore, the use of adult punishments, far from trying to discourage crime, actually increases the likelihood that a young person will commit further criminal offenses. The increasing numbers of children transferred from juvenile to criminal courts is continuing in the face of this mounting evidence of the harm it does both to the children and to public safety. Dr. Steinberg wrote it best in his analysis of trying these children as adults by saying, “”Tough on crime” politics undermines good public policy” (Steinberg).

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Presenting Juveniles as Adults in the Criminal Justice System. (2019, May 08). Retrieved from