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.