Under what circumstances should juveniles be treated as adults


Topic #1: Handling Juvenile Offenders as Adults

Consider the status of juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system. Under what circumstances should they be treated like adults?

In the lecture about The Steps of the Criminal Justice Process, I mention the conundrum surrounding how to handle juveniles (i.e., anyone under the age of 18) that commit crimes. The vast majority of them will be handed over for processing within the juvenile justice system. We won?t be focusing on the juvenile justice system in this course, but it?s relevant to consider the conditions under which a juvenile might be handled as an adult.

Remember, being processed as an adult, instead of within the juvenile justice system, means a number of major potential consequences – some immediate, others long-term:

  • What happens to adults in criminal court is a matter of public record. It means there is no expectation of anonymity (i.e., the defendant?s name and photo could be revealed in media reports of the case). The records surrounding the case won?t be sealed, which could have implications in terms of (among other things) future educational or employment opportunities. (Juvenile court records are usually sealed ? that is, not available to the general public except under certain special circumstances ? and can be more easily expunged than adult criminal records can.)
  • If convicted, the potential penalties are more severe than if processed in juvenile court ? life imprisonment (with the possibility of parole) is a potential possibility. The death penalty is not ? in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court ruled that executing individuals who were juveniles at the time of the crime is unconstitutional. Compare this to the most serious penalty that a juvenile court can administer ? generally, incarceration in a juvenile correctional facility until the age of 21.
  • If convicted and sentenced to a term of incarceration, the juvenile defendant who is being processed as an adult will generally be placed in an adult correctional facility (although an effort will often be made, depending on the defendant?s specific age, to segregate him/her from the general prison population).
  • The focus of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, and an effort is made to provide juveniles processed within the system with appropriate treatment services. Although various forms of rehabilitative services are available to adult offenders, their availability does vary widely. Incarcerated adult offenders may or may not have access to appropriate therapeutic services, no matter how great their apparent need. The “adult” criminal justice system has a far more punitive focus than the juvenile justice system does.

For this Policy Essay, imagine that you are a member of your State Senate. You wish to reconsider the issue of how serious juvenile offenders are handled by courts and corrections in your state. You want to propose legislation on this issue, in which you will address a number of important questions. How would you respond to the following concerns?

  • What is the minimum age at which a juvenile (i.e., person under the age of 18 at the time of the offense) should be automatically transferred to “adult” criminal court?
    • Should it further depend on the type of crime? If you believe that juveniles should be eligible for transfer to ? adult? criminal court based on type of crime, what types of crime would make him/her eligible?
    • Are there any other circumstances surrounding the offense that would result in possible transfer to ?adult? criminal court?
    • If you do NOT believe that juveniles should ever be eligible for transfer to ? adult? criminal court, why not? What sorts of penalties juveniles who have committed serious offenses face instead?
  • At what minimum age should juveniles face the possibility of life imprisonment, and for what types of crimes?
    • If you believe that juveniles should be eligible for life imprisonment, would you make allowances to place them away from the adult prison population?
    • In decisions issued in 2010 and 2012, the Supreme Court greatly limited the circumstances in which juveniles may be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe that juveniles should be eligible for the death penalty? (Note that the Supreme Court declared the death penalty for juveniles to be unconstitutional?But do you believe this issue should be revisited?) Why or why not, and if so, under what circumstances?
  • Do you believe the age at which one is considered a legal adult (at least for criminal adjudication purposes) should be changed completely – that is, increased or decreased for ALL?

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