Should Youth Be Tried as Adults?


There are some very strict laws in the US surrounding age. You have to be 21 to drink, 18 to buy tobacco, 16 to obtain a driver’s license, and the list goes on. For the most part, these laws are enforced to the absolute degree; being 17 years and 364 days will not allow you to legally buy a cigarette. However there is one major exception in our country’s reliance on age related law enforcement.

In the criminal justice system, we are free to prosecute juveniles as adults, including children below the age of 16.

There are in fact numerous reasons why juveniles should not be tried as adults, and why this method fails as a criminal justice approach. For one, we have tried a one-size-fits-all criminal justice system in the past, and it didn’t work out. In the early 19th century, there was only one criminal justice system in the US. Americans had a growing national concern about youth being tried and imprisoned alongside adults. In response, the nation established a framework for our current juvenile justice system. Cook County in Illinois established the first juvenile court in 1899, and the rest of the states followed suit over the next thirty years.

Today, the term juvenile justice encompasses the “area of criminal law applicable to persons not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts.” This system is specifically designed to rehabilitate troubled and delinquent youth, reflecting the notion that youth can indeed be reformed into responsible citizens. There is an apparent need for a separate justice system to address the unique nature of juvenile offenses.

Despite this system, minors are still able to be prosecuted as adults today. Each state has different standards to determine if cases will be sent to adult court, but the courts typically examine factors such as the defendant’s age, maturity, past attempts at rehabilitation, harm caused, etc. Much of the discretion in these cases is left up to the states. In fourteen states, there is no minimum age for trying a child as an adult, while other states have set low minimum ages such as 10, 12 or 14.  The lack of consistency from a national perspective is a major part of the issue.

More importantly, there is an ethical dilemma in the reasoning here. The entire rationale behind creating a juvenile justice system is that children are distinctly not the same as adults. Our society operates based on the principle that juveniles are less mature and overall less capable of making rational decisions for themselves. This is especially true of younger children, who would rarely be subject to the same degree and type of discipline as an adult. If research has proven that children do not possess fully developed mental faculties, then on what basis would we hold a child accountable as an adult?

A crucial difference between children and adults is that children are capable of immense improvement and change while still in their formative years. A person of young age is not finished developing, and we cannot ascertain who they will turn out to be if they are given the proper support and rehabilitation. Although there still remains a possibility of positive change with adult offenders, it is generally thought that adults are more set in their ways, meaning that the criminal justice system is less effective in intervening to change their behaviors. Subjecting youth to the same standards as an adult undermines and defies the potential of a still growing person.

Of course, the majority of juveniles being sentenced as adults are not young children, although there have been kids as young as 12 years old sentenced in adult court. Most youth tried as adults are 16 or 17 year olds who have committed particularly heinous crimes. Some people contend that it is more justifiable to sentence someone who is 17 or 18 as an adult, since they are close to the age of criminal culpability. Despite that fact, and the very serious nature of some crimes,  I fail to see how committing an offense “ages” a defendant, unless we are to make the false assumption that perpetrating evil deeds requires an age limit.

18 years is the standard, legally accepted age at which a person can be held responsible for his/her criminal actions. No matter what offense a juvenile commits, their age should not become a variable factor that can suddenly be adjusted according to our moral code.I find that this line of thinking presents a dangerously slippery slope, where we will always be left wondering where to draw the line between being “close to an adult” and being a “juvenile”.

Rather than sentence juveniles under laws that were not designed for them, I propose that we modify the current sentencing procedures of the juvenile justice system. Currently, a juvenile offender can only be imprisoned until he/she turns 21. This presents a serious problem for judges, since some juveniles have committed crimes that warrant a longer sentence, especially those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their offense. Rather than send youth to an adult prison prematurely, we should reform the law so that judges can sentence a juvenile past the age of 21. The individual can be transferred to an adult prison upon reaching the max-out age of the juvenile detention center.

My primary concern lies in enforcing laws in a consistent and rational manner. Currently, we fail to do so by transferring juvenile criminals into a system that does not reflect nor address the defendant’s legal age.


5 thoughts on “Should Youth Be Tried as Adults?

  1. I agree with your analysis here, and I think that the concerns you raise highlight the underlying debate of punitive vs. rehabilitative criminal sentences. We find punitive measures, rather than rehabilitative ones, to be better suited for adults and visa versa for children. Even among adults though, I think we should be moving toward a system that favors rehabilitation. So many in prisons are more victims of circumstance than truly evil individuals. Punitive policies are more moralistic than pragmatic, and should be phased out.


    1. Obviously the whole prison system presents a shitload of diverse problems. I agree with Progressive Publication in that even with adults we need to redirect our efforts and make rehabilitation a bigger part of this. America is one of the most punitive countries in the world, but our love for punishing people does not reduce the crime rate. Putting people in the awful environment that is jail/prison doesn’t compel people to respect the systems that create these laws and societal rules.


  2. Well said! The juvenile justice system exists because the youth are less mature and do not have the same rationale as adults. Why have a juvenile justice system in the first place, if the American justice system is not going to make use of it. Like you said, criminal offenses cannot age individuals. If they are 17, they should be tried as a 17 year old. If they are 25, they should be tried as a 25 year old. However, a 25 year old should be held more accountable for the same crime committed by a 17 year old.


  3. It’s a really tough call honestly. Jail is supposed to help rehabilitate prisoners, but in reality, it’s a punitive system. I do think children deserve a second chance –as parenting is most likely the issue cause of their problems, but there are situations where I think minors should probably receive harsher penalties than the maximum sentence allowed under law for minors. I think you proposed a very rational way to approach this problem, and I think keeping minors in facilities past the age of 21 could present a better chance for rehabilitation than the current situation. It seems absurd to let a child grow up in an adult prison, and it also seems absurd to limit the penalties for juveniles when certain crimes require a severe response. Are there currently jails for prisoners who were sentenced as minors but reached the age of 21? This is a problem that I really need to inform myself more about.


  4. This issue is something that I have been interested in ever since I watched the documentary Valentine Road. I highly recommend that you take the time to see this film it shows an extremely interesting story that depicts the complexities of this issue. I am still extremely torn about my stance on this issue but, I do believe children deserve a second chance. While some adults may commit the same crime as someone under the age of 18, I believe that younger people do deserve more rehabilitation options while an adult may be imprisoned for life. After readying your post, I am definitely going to do more research about this topic but at first glance one way to deal with this issue would be to address violence and crimes committed by children. Implementing programs in schools that can teach children the severity of acting in such a way and how they can truly jeopardize their future is important. Although we may never be able to get rid of crimes committed by youth, education is definitely a good step to take and hopefully we can minimize the number of children on trial.


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