Hundreds of years ago all convicted criminals were housed together, regardless of gender, age, or mental illness. Prisons were filled with a mix of them all, until somebody recognized that there was a problem with the system in 1825. That is when New York House of Refuge was established with the goal of educating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders. It was not until 1899, however, that the first juvenile court was established meant to deal just with those under the age of 18. But there was unequal treatment of juveniles, and after much ado, Congress ultimately passed legislation—the Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention Act—in the mid-1970s to try to level things out. Nowadays we often hear that many juveniles should be tried as adults. Quite often those cries are heard, and now over 10,000 prisoners under the age of 18 are serving time in adult prisons across the country. What are the justifications for and against such a move?
Arguments Against Trying Juveniles as Adults
Opponents of such a move have several strong arguments to explain their position:
- Parents do not have to take any responsibility: When kids commit serious crimes, parents should be held accountable to some degree, such as by being ordered to find proper counseling, care, and rehabilitation opportunities.
- There is no benefit: Nobody wins when children, who should be getting education and rehabilitation, are simply locked up. Furthermore, it does not meet family court’s standard of acting in the child’s best interest.
- Criminal activity is more likely again: When juveniles are treated like adults, they are less likely to get the help they need to change their lives, and a life of crime becomes more likely.
- Punishment options are limited: The juvenile court system can order things like curfews and counseling, but the range of options in adult court is not geared toward young offenders.
- Suicide risk increases: Juveniles in adult prisons are usually put in solitary confinement until they are old enough to join the general population, which makes them 40 times more likely to commit suicide.
- A jury of peers is not possible: Every jury will consist of adults, even though the defendant may be just 9 or 10 years old.
- Sealing records is harder: It is much more difficult to seal an adult criminal record, making it more difficult to make a fresh start.
- Young brains are underdeveloped: Juveniles’ brains have not developed completely, meaning their decision-making abilities are inadequate. Based on neurobiology alone, it is unfair and unfitting to hold them to the same standards we hold adults.
Arguments in Favor of Trying Juveniles as Adults
Proponents of treating kids as adults in the justice system are equally passionate in their arguments:
- It teaches accountability: Some families just do not teach accountability, and it is left to society to pick up the slack. Serious crimes deserve serious penalties.
- Juvenile courts are too lax with serious criminals: When juveniles are given the toughest sentence possible in a juvenile court, they could be out in their neighborhoods again by the time they are 18 (or 21 or 25 in some states). About 300 people are killed by children every year. Neighborhoods and communities deserve protection from all violent predators, regardless of their age.
- Actions should have consequences: If a serious crime is committed, the age of the offender should not matter. Society demands justice, and there is no way around it..
- They will have access to more programs: Adult prisons offer vocational and mental health programs that are bigger and better than what the juvenile system offers, along with programming for mental health, addiction, and learning disabilities.