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Should Juvenile Offenders Be Treated Like Adults?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 4642 words Published: 5th May 2017

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This paper is intended to inform readers on the history behind the juvenile justice system, the severity of the juvenile offender problem, the pros and cons of trying juveniles as adults, and views on the death penalty concerning juveniles. This paper will also provide professional views as to why juveniles should not be tried as adults. Studies have shown that trying juveniles as adults is not only detrimental to their well being but can cause irreparable damage to them psychologically and physically. Statistics have been provided that state that a juvenile that enters an adult prison will be sexually or physically abused during the first week.

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For most of the twentieth century, the criminal process of juveniles has been separate from adults and intended to be informal and confidential. However, the reality was that in return for these benefits, juveniles would receive few legal rights and protections. In the 1960s, when constitutional due process rights were revised for adults, the issue of procedural due process for juvenile offenders became more prominent. As the juvenile crime rate has increased, there has been a vocal response to prosecute juveniles accused of serious crimes as adults. With the number of juvenile offenders growing so has the severity of their crimes. Regardless of their age, the public expresses that those guilty of serious crimes should receive a serious punishment.

This paper will show that juveniles should not be tried as adults because of lack of maturity, exposure to negative home environments, improper adult supervision, and opportunities to rehabilitate. Evidence will demonstrate that there are multiple philosophies and measures being set into motion to help deter crime involving juveniles, first and foremost, and treatments, methods and psychological personnel put into place to help rehabilitate juveniles from committing offenses. The pros and cons of trying juveniles as adults will also be discussed, showing that the cons outweigh the pros drastically.

When creating the outline of our country’s justice system, our founding fathers probably did not think about the consequences of crimes committed by juveniles. At that time, children were considered their parents’ property. When they committed a crime, their punishment was given at the discretion of their parents. It is realistic to say that our founding fathers would have never considered severe punishments for young people. They believed that children were vulnerable, fragile, innocent and in need of protection and understanding.

Juvenile procedures in the United States have become more adult like for all offenders. The justice system has adopted more compelling guidelines for juveniles, such as, mandatory or decisive sentences and more frequent transfers of juvenile offenders to adult courts. The twenty-first century has brought more significant changes in the utilization of the United States Juvenile Justice Policy. Changes that are being referred to as the obvious increase in juvenile offenders being prosecuted and sentenced as if they were adults.

From the start of the Juvenile Justice System, an important boundary has been set separating juveniles from criminal court. This boundary comes in the form of a justification that there are important psychological differences between juveniles and adults and these differences are incited by the normal process of mental development, age-relation, and legal relevance. Nevertheless, this boundary is only infringed in serious cases of disregard and when the juvenile’s age approaches the limit of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

Every state in the United States allows juveniles to be tried as adults in criminal court under certain conditions. There are three general components that are used to achieve these conditions; first, there is the Judicial Waiver, where a juvenile court judge may transfer the case to criminal court based on a variety of conditions, including the seriousness of the offense, the maturity of the juvenile, and the likeliness that the juvenile will be rehabilitated. This foundation exists in most states with minimal differences in respect to the age limit for transfers. In other states, a presumptive waiver process is followed, whereas, it is assumed appropriate to transfer a juvenile to criminal court unless the juvenile can prove that they have the ability to be rehabilitated. The final decision still is up to the judge but the burden of proof is on the juvenile.

Second, there is Direct File often referred to as Prosecutorial Discretion. A prosecutor at his discretion can file charges in either juvenile or criminal court. Finally, there is the Statutory Exclusion, sometimes called Legislative Exclusion, Mandatory Transfer, or Automatic Transfer. In jurisdictions where this is recognized, certain categories of juveniles are automatically sent to criminal court. Age of the juvenile and the type of offense is the determination of these categories. Some states do allow what is called a reverse waiver, where a criminal court judge can transfer a case back to juvenile court based on characteristics of the offender and the offense. Similar to the cases of presumptive waiver within the juvenile court, the burden of proof in reverse waiver cases lies with the offender.

The juvenile justice system in the United States has taken on a type of adjustment during the last several decades following the claim that juvenile offenders have received the same equal rights as adult offenders. In every jurisdiction of the United States, juvenile justice reforms have unevenly progressed with some jurisdictions being hesitant to change their juvenile codes and legal structures. Private interests have increasingly influenced the juvenile justice system. They are raising interest particularly in the correctional area. While this interest has shown to be helpful, provide constructive criticism, and also provide economical alternatives to public detention of juveniles, their interest has further made an already complicated juvenile justice system worse.

Parens patriae has been described by some authors as the bedrock foundation of justifying the juvenile courts (Watkins, 1987). The juvenile justice system has proceeded largely according to the doctrine, parens patriae, as intervention in the lives of children violating certain statutory laws. Several interventions have gradually been done away with when trying to meet the real needs of children and helping toward criminal prosecutions. These include the intervention of due process, greater prosecutorial presence in juvenile court proceedings, and the court’s functions that all together make the juvenile courts more criminalized. Cast in the context of parens patriae as the family model of juvenile justice, which is found to have promised more that it can deliver. Watkins (1987) observes that the original child savers failed to foresee the inevitable conflict between the rehabilitative dogmas of parens patriae and the social, political, and economic forces of today’s culture that promote just deserts. Thus, Watkins (1987) notes, “juvenile laws and the authority of juvenile courts have not only failed, but have been, in turn, undermined by and then allied with political, social, and economic forces at war with the rehabilitative ideal characteristic of early juvenile jurisprudence.”

Despite the fact that juvenile court has for the most part been traditionally a civil proceeding, various types of court reforms, sentencing changes, evidentiary standards, and modifications of juvenile rights are moving it into a more criminal format. Proposals are being offered by different professionals to unite the United States Court Systems and combine juvenile and criminal actions into one process. Those that disagree with court unification argue that the juvenile justice system should be held in tact even though they too favor certain reforms. Often these reforms emphasize greater accountability for one’s actions, regardless of age.

The just deserts philosophy is well known in many juvenile courts. The rehabilitative treatment centered philosophy, that has dominated the criminal justice system for part of the twentieth century, has gradually given way to the justice philosophy. The justice philosophy is associated with harsher punishments and handing down penalties for offenders according to the seriousness of their crimes. While a broader range of rights are being given to juveniles in juvenile courts, repetitive and serious juveniles are being moved to adult courts by the way of transfers and waiver.

Measures that are being used today within the juvenile justice system to crack down on juveniles include greater use of detention and the greater use of waivers to criminal courts. Overcrowding in juvenile detention centers should be a consideration even though it is expected and inevitable. The use of probation and parole is considered to be the first and last solution to this problem. Placing limits on population in detention facilities sets precedence in system adjustments and responses that impact in various ways the juvenile justice system as a whole.

In all jurisdictions, pre-adjudication detention of juveniles is legally recognized. Those juveniles transferred to criminal courts are in an unpleasant position of being placed in jails, prisons, or detention centers with adults, where the risk of sexual assault is great and the exposure to criminal activity, even in a prison setting, is severe. In several jurisdictions, the changing of laws requires instant transfers of juveniles to adult criminal courts. One example is the Juvenile Offender Law of New York passed in 1978. This law provides instant transfers of juveniles to criminal court, when specific serious offenses are alleged. This law has also been passed in Illinois. Assessments of these instant transfer laws suggest that juveniles are held for longer periods of time while awaiting trial and that the services usually available to them in juvenile courts are nonexistent in adult proceedings. The loss of valuable services and the greater detention time while awaiting trail can be detrimental to juveniles and also show that the cost of transferring juveniles to adult courts far outweighs the potential financial and social benefits.

Critics state that juvenile courts express that many current administrative expectations and operations are almost non-existent from those in adult criminal courts. Also, procedural screenings available in juvenile courts are less than satisfactory than those given to alleged adult offenders in criminal courts. Unquestionably, juveniles are considered to have the worst of both worlds.

In most United States jurisdictions, there are currently many dispositional options available to juvenile judges. Several of these options include unofficial probation, referral to specific community agencies, warnings or case dismissals, waivers, detention hearings, and conditional punishments, such as community service and restitution. In Columbia County, Georgia, peer juries exist as an essential element of diversion programs, the program is design to hear charges against youths and adjudicate them according to the evidence presented. The peer juries consist of five jurors under the age of seventeen, who are trained by juvenile court staff. Jury selections are made available through a list of these eligible youths. These peer juries have been proven to be capable of giving appropriate punishments in both non-serious and serious cases.

In past decades, a gradual disapproval with the criminal justice system has occurred. Citizens have received a strong degree of distrust with law enforcement, the courts, and corrections, and their abilities to process, punish, and manage offenders. The United States Supreme Court has required law enforcement officers to adhere to firmer standards in effectively making arrests of suspected criminals, as well as, in their procedures pertaining to seizing necessary evidence against these suspects. Ninety percent of all criminal convictions are obtained through plea bargains instead of going to trial and the use of probation as a sentence alternative is as high as seventy percent in several jurisdictions, also most offenders who are incarcerated serve only a portion of their sentences and are conditionally released on parole to relieve overcrowding. The public has voiced a concern of how lax our criminal justice system has become towards offenders, and also how ubiquitous the entire system is.

One reaction to this laxity has been the arrival of the get tough movement, brought about by modifications made to sentences imposed on adults convicted of serious crimes. These sentences may include longer prison terms, heavier fines and other monetary penalties. There has been a noticeable spillover of this movement into the juvenile justice system.

Despite trends and estimates of juvenile offense patterns and inconsistencies and inconclusive statistics, juvenile court reform has been exasperated and continued into the 1990s. It also shows few signs of decreasing. Although the get tough policy toward juveniles is supported by most jurisdictions, greater detention times and incarceration of youths has not proven to be a remedy for rehabilitating them or reducing their regression. Because of inconsistencies in study findings and familiar outcomes of detention programs, such as, therapeutic juvenile interventions, many states are currently reexamining their detention policies for minors and reducing their reliance on detention as a form of punishment.

Among the critical factors that have contributed to these inconsistencies and distinctive juvenile offense trends, there has been a disappointment with conventional juvenile treatments such as diversion, probation, short-term detention and parole, an apparent psychological collateral of juvenile violence that rests beyond the boundaries of conventional treatment methods, and a assortment of descriptive and reporting methods and the changing of laws within jurisdictions as consistent means of documenting deviating juveniles.

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Compared to adult courts, juvenile courts are somewhat limited to the types of sanctions they may impose for even the most violent juvenile offenders. Criminal courts in a majority of jurisdictions may impose the death penalty on adult offenders convicted of capital crimes. No United States Juvenile Court has this type of jurisdiction and sanctioning option available. Even detention sanctions that may be applied by juvenile judges have certain structural limitations.

Once juveniles reach a certain age, eighteen in some states and twenty-one in others, they are no longer within the parameters of juvenile courts and in most instances leave the juvenile system. They also now have clean records as adults. Their juvenile records are not necessarily dismissed, but for all pragmatic purposes they begin their adult life with no criminal record.

When decisions made by juvenile judges are examined, to determine the nature and types of punishments reviewed when juvenile offenders are adjudicated as a delinquent, these decisions often show a pattern of leniency. These leniencies may come from reluctance to contribute to labeling juvenile offenders as delinquent. However, it is often traced to additional factors such as prison overcrowding, excessive probation officer caseloads, the lack of adequate juvenile monitoring programs and methods to keep track of increasing numbers of youthful offenders. It also may be a simple matter of not being able to afford the imposition of costly punishments whenever they are demanded. The difficulty of these situations puts judges in a complicated position and they are left to have to deal with juveniles leniently, even the violent ones.

Many of the same views are shared and raised concerning when juveniles are sent into adult courts and the differences about distinguishing their ages and that it may leave them inadequate to defend themselves in those courts. Current discussions about transfer policies are commonly not about the offender’s attributes but about the gravity of the act and the juvenile’s harmfulness. These factors are based on the age or maturity of the offender. As the juvenile justice policy, which mainly focused on offenders has recently shifted to an offense based focus. Several issues have arisen as part of the transfer argument. These include moral, legal, political, and practical issues.

It should also be stated and not forgotten that the fact that some crimes are committed by individuals are not developmentally mature. There should be a boundary between adults and adolescents when it comes to punishment. From a developmental psychology perspective, a fair punishment for an adult may not be fair when given to a juvenile who does not understand the consequences of their actions, severity of their crime or who was unable to gain control over their behavior.

The ways that people interpret and apply laws should lawfully differ when the case involves a defendant who has limited understanding of the law because of intellectual immaturity or who has impaired judgment because of emotional immaturity. When the offender is of a young age, the presumptions and outcomes of administering a harsh punishment vary differently when the juvenile is an adult. Opinions of people may differ, but age should be considered in decisions concerning transfer, adjudication, and sentencing. This is to say that if one is willing to acknowledge that the age of the offender does matter, an un-biased developmental perspective is needed to make informed decisions about age should be taken into account (Steinberg, 2000).

More emphasis should be placed on the age a juvenile should be before transferring to adult court. Juveniles younger than thirteen should remain in juvenile court regardless of the crime. It is a belief that regardless of the nature of their offense, individuals under the age of thirteen should be viewed as juveniles due to mental capacity and maturity. Also, it is appropriate to conclude that the majority of juveniles older than sixteen are not that much different from adults in ways that would prohibit fair adjudication within the criminal justice system. The difference among juveniles between the ages of thirteen and sixteen requires that some sort of individualized assessment be completed of the offender to determine competence to stand trial, blameworthiness, and admittance to treatment be made before reaching a transfer decision. If the justice system does not consider age as a factor, then boundaries are drawn. Research completed on juvenile developments strongly stands against transfer policies that are based on the offense rather than the offender and argues that policies based on the offender allows the justice system to exercise judgment about a juvenile offenders’ maturity level and eligibility for transfer. It is considered a bad policy legislatively from a developmental perspective to transfer cases based solely on the offense.

Unfortunately, this undesirable policy is becoming increasingly common. The contradiction of utilizing a developmental perspective in the analysis of transfer policies is that the exercise makes known the characteristic inadequacies of the policies that draw obvious distinctions between adolescence and adulthood. An analysis of the developmental literature definitely shows that a difference among adolescents of a given chronological age is the rule rather than the exception. Steinberg (2000) calls for a fair transfer policy to accommodate such variability as recommendations from developmental perspectives. One way to do this is to make sure that judges, juries, and law personnel have solid and complete background information about a juvenile and their adolescent development and the flexibility of utilizing this information when making decisions about a juveniles’ fate that may have lifelong consequences. As for the flexibility, one can only rely on the wisdom of policymakers.

Sitting next to a juvenile on trial in an adult courtroom provides numerous reminders that, regardless of what that juvenile has been involved in, they are still a child. Defendants are supposed to elect whether they want a jury or a judge trial, a serious decision that requires weighing many factors (Nakaya, 2005). Even though, defendants are generally required to assist with their defense and advised their attorneys in different aspects of their cases, a juvenile will probably decide on a jury member because of their dress color or because they may look like someone they know.

The juvenile justice system is supposed to concentrate on reforming youth offenders not letting them rot behind bars (Nakaya, 2005). Rehabilitation is the key when it comes to juveniles. They do not have the maturity level, knowledge or self-control that we would see in an adult offender. It can be said that juveniles do not understand the consequences of their actions. When juveniles are sent to adult court, the background of why they may have committed these dramatic or dangerous acts needs to be evaluated to understand why they committed their crime. Often there are extenuating circumstances from a juvenile’s past that has contributed to the why.

Juveniles are not adults by any means and trying them in a court of law does not make them one. When juveniles are tried in adult criminal court, it does not give them the privileges of voting or drinking. They are still minors. They are developmentally less mature and responsible, more impulsive, erratic and vulnerable to negative peer pressure. As human beings, they are still active works in progress.

Across the country, the responses of lawmakers, in regards to the rise in violent juvenile crimes, have been to create stricter laws. Many states have passed laws making it easier to try and convict a juvenile as an adult and have also toughen penalties for juveniles with guns. Some states have also developed training prisons for young offenders and a new federal crime bill tries to deter juvenile crime by making it a federal crime for anyone under age eighteen to purchase, possess, or use a gun. Supporters of these laws voice that the punishment fit the crime, even if the crime is committed by a juvenile.

On June 16th, 1944, South Carolina executed George Stinney. He was fourteen years old, the youngest person ever executed in the United States. Stinney, who was black, was convicted of murdering two white girls, Betty Binnicker, and Mary Emma Thames, with a railroad spike. His trial lasted only three hours, and the all white jury deliberated for only ten minutes before sentencing him to death by electric chair. At Stinney’s execution, the prison guards had a difficult time strapping him into the chair. During the electrocution process, the electric jolt shook the mask off his head. Is this really the way juveniles should be treated. The death penalty is not an option when trying juveniles for serious crimes. It is not only immoral but also inhuman.

When it comes to death penalty issues, scientist’s views are that a juvenile’s brain changes dramatically and this may be accountable for hasty and often irrational behavior of some juveniles demonstrating that adolescents are less liable than adults. This is strongly countered by victim advocacy groups claiming that it is just an effort by the community that opposes the death penalty to use science in debating their positions. Most juveniles who commit murder realize that their actions were fallacious because they often try to hide or destroy evidence in order to avoid getting caught. Additionally, most family members of murder victims do not think a person’s age, at the time of the crime, should result in a lighter sentence. Focusing on the heinousness of the crime, many people have no regards to how old the offender is.

Problems that occur within the family setting of juveniles that have an impact of crimes they commit include: divorce or separation, working single parents, single parent families, lack of adult supervision, parental rejection of the juvenile, juvenile rejection of the parent, and the different views between parents and teens increases the risk that the teen may try to distance themselves from the parents in order to establish their own self. Other problems that may occur and cause juveniles to become delinquent are: children spending more time with their friends than family, gangs or peer acceptance, drugs and weapons use have increased among juveniles as a way to solve their problems, illicit and explicit sexuality and violence in the media, and also the impact the media has influenced with the introduction of computers and violent video games. Who should be held liable for the negligent behavior a juvenile commits, the parents or society? It is believed that parents, who knowingly or recklessly allow their children to commit crimes of violent natures, should be held legally liable. Today without special educational programs in child development and parenting groups many of our future parents will contribute to juvenile delinquency by merely not knowing how to be parents.

In order to take a stand on the subject, the pros and cons of the argument on whether juveniles should be punished the same way as adults are judicious and worth reviewing. Developmental research should be heard and considered even though policies on juvenile justice have become tougher against juvenile offenders. On the other hand, people pushing for tougher punishments on juveniles have already succeeded for the most part with most states in the United States adopting a more disciplinary response to juvenile offenders and their offenses. Studies have shown that harsher penalties and punishments for juveniles do not necessarily result in lower crime rates when the juveniles complete their sentences and are released back into the world. Trying juveniles as adults may be doing more harm than good.

This research paper, on one hand, appreciates the progressive responses of the juvenile law on offenders despite the get tough policy that gathers resistance and argument. While many have argue that it is right for a juvenile to be punished as an adult, this author disagrees that the United States laws on juvenile justice has not provided an equal response to the growing concern of juvenile offenders. It is unconstitutional to include juveniles as adults in adult courts because children lack cognizance of the crimes in which they have committed. The population should be considerate and offender-focused at certain times about this juvenile justice argument. The author also found reasonable argument of recommending a uniform juvenile justice policy by specifying age limits for juvenile transfers. This is for the reason that there is an apparent unspecified offender’s age homogeneous to all jurisdictions on this matter. Through specification of a juveniles’ age, the boundary that was once posted between juveniles and adults will be somehow redefined. In this way, we are taking stances from both sides of the argument with an aim of suggesting a better solution to this critical contemporary issue of juvenile offending.


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