The United States is the only country in the world where the justice system will sentence children to death behind bars for the crimes that they commit. Although the conduct is usually deemed to be violent, which makes the individual a threat to the general population, there is no way out of the system if you are a juvenile tried as an adult and then sentenced to life in prison.
Cyntoia Brown is one story of about 10,000 who was sentenced as a juvenile for killing a man when she was just 16 years old. She was given clemency in 2019 after serving 15 years in prison for the crime. She has always maintained that her actions were in self-defense because the man she killed had purchased her for sex.
Brown reportedly shot the man while he was sleeping, and then stole his cash, guns, and truck as she fled the scene. Prosecutors argued that her motivation for killing was motivated by robbery instead of self-defense.
25% of the people who were sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile have no possibility of parole. As a nation, the pros and cons of having juveniles being tried as an adult is a subject with which many have been grappling for generations. It was as early as 1899 when the United States began creating the first courts for youth offenders. These are the key points to consider.
List of the Pros of Trying Juveniles as Adults
1. It offers a suitable penalty for severe crimes that some juveniles commit.
Even though they are juveniles because of their age, people under the age of 18 can commit severe crimes. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there are approximately 350 killed each year because of a lone juvenile offender. Although this number is roughly 75% less than what it was in the early 1990s, it is still one of the highest rates in the world today. Approximately 40% of the murders that occur which involve a juvenile include an adult as well.
2. It reduces the chance that a repeat offender will commit multiple severe crimes.
From data released in 2016, the OJJDP reports that known juvenile offenders were involved in approximately 700 murders in the United States. That represents about 7% of all the known murder offenders which are in the country. Between 2003 to 2006, the estimated number of juvenile murder offenders increased by 32% after the drop from the 1990s before it was able to fall by 31% through 2016.
3. It treats teens who are almost adults as part of the adult system for the purpose of justice.
The severity of a crime that a juvenile commits typically increases as they get older. This trend is especially prevalent for homicide offenses. In 2016, approximately 9% of the known juvenile homicide offenders were under the age of 15. Within that same data set, 79% of the offenders were either 16 or 17 years old at the time they committed the crime. By sentencing them in a way that is similar to what an adult would receive, these older teens do not receive “credit” for the fact that they may only be a few months away from becoming a legal adult in the United States.
4. It creates a level of certainty in the justice system for victims.
Although it does not happen often, young children sometimes decide to commit premeditated crimes, including homicide, and the criminal justice system must respond appropriately. There is a case of a 10-year-old girl in the state of Wisconsin who was charged in 2018 in the killing of a 6-month-old, and state law requires anyone who is age 10 or above to have their case brought in adult court.
In this case, the 10-year-old girl allegedly dropped the baby boy, who then hit his head and began to cry. The girl then allegedly panicked, choosing to stomp him on the head to get him to be quiet. She told authorities that she was afraid that she would get into trouble. Prosecutors charged her with first-degree intentional homicide.
5. It provides a measure of consistency for the severity of the crime.
In 2006, the bodies of Marc and Debra Richardson, along with their 8-year-old son, were discovered in their home by an even younger boy who saw them through the window. The couple’s 12-year-old daughter was missing from the home, so the first inclination for law enforcement was to think an abduction occurred. The reality of this crime scene is that Jasmine Richardson killed her parents and brother, stabbing the young boy in the chest while her boyfriend slit his throat. Her boyfriend was 23 and a “self-proclaimed 300-year-old werewolf.” Jasmine was given 10 years in prison.
She was scheduled to complete her sentence in 2015, but then was released to the community in 2012 despite being convicted of a triple homicide.
6. It can offer services to the youth that would not be available in the juvenile system.
The juvenile system focuses on providing youth offenders with counseling, vocational development, and school access which allows them to continue with their studies. There may be some mental health supports available as well. When they are sentenced to the adult system, then they can take advantage of the additional programming that is available there, including addiction support, GED learning, and opportunity to continue an education.
7. It provides a way to teach accountability.
Children are often a product of their home environment. If illegal actions seem like they are “normal” or “accepted” in their household, then they will see that as being an acceptable course of action to take in the rest of society as well. Juvenile courts do not offer records that provide an explicit proof of lenience that is based on age, but the sentences offered to kids that are comparable to adult crimes suggest that this is a conclusion one could draw from the data. At some point, society needs to teach all youth, no matter what their home background may be, that there are actions which are permitted and ones that are not for the greater protection of everyone. Juveniles being tried as an adult is one way that we can begin this lesson.
8. It treats severe crimes with the seriousness that they deserve.
There are many crimes which children commit that are severe and draw into question how safe a community would be if they were allowed to be set free or serve a reduced or alternative sentence. Diante Pellum was 14 years old when he was accused of shooting another teen in the back of the head near Federal Way in Washington. Alexander Crisostomo was ordered to stand trial as an adult for killing a 41-year-old man when he was just 15. If these teens where given a standard youth sentence, then there is an excellent chance that they would be back on the street by the age of 25. Sentencing them as an adult gives the justice system the time it needs to offer a true chance at rehabilitation.
9. It provides the community with an opportunity to have a say in the process.
When children are tried in juvenile court, then the judge presiding over the case will have the final decision as to what the outcome of the proceedings will be. That means the judge is responsible for determining the guilt or innocence of the juvenile, and what their sentence should be for their crime. By transferring the case to the adult court system, it provides an opportunity for the community to weigh in on what they believe the outcome of the case should be. If they feel like it is improper to have the case held there, then they can take permitted actions as a juror to make that preference known.
List of the Cons of Trying Juveniles as Adults
1. It does not take into account the maturity of the child.
Laurence Steinberg works as an adolescent psychologist and he told Inside Edition in 2018 that it is rare to have juveniles tried as adults. In his opinion, this option for the justice system should be limited to teens who are at least 15 years old and are repeat violent offenders. In regards to the case of the 10-year-old girl in Wisconsin, Steinberg said that she wouldn’t likely pass a competency test to stand trial in the first place. It is unconstitutional to try someone in court who doesn’t know what is going on.
2. It does not usually offer an opportunity for rehabilitation.
In another case from the state of Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls were accused of repeatedly stabbing their classmate to honor the Internet character “Slenderman.” The Supreme Court for the state made the decision to try these two girls as adults. Both of them chose to plead guilty to the crime, of which their “friend” was able to survive. One girl was sentenced to 25 years in a mental institution, while the other was given 40 years. The adult system simply does not have the capacity to respond to the needs of children, especially those who are young, in ways that are developmentally appropriate.
3. It creates an element of risk for the child while they are in prison.
There are approximately 10,000 children who are currently housed in adult prison or jails on any given day in the United States. This response to the crime places them at a needless risk because a child is five times more likely to be sexually assaulted when serving time in an adult prison than they are if they are in a juvenile facility. These kids are 36 times more likely to commit suicide as well. There are untreated mental illnesses to consider, limited experiences in managing anxiety or trauma, and impulsive actions that are related more to biological development than logical outcomes.
Kalief Browder was 22 years old when he eventually committed suicide in June 2015. He had spent several years in solitary confinement as a teen at Rikers Island because he had allegedly stolen a backpack.
4. It reduces the number of options that are available for sentencing.
Judges who work in the juvenile justice system have multiple options available to them when sentencing children who commit a crime. Their options include house arrest, curfew, counseling, or treatment in residential programs in addition to juvenile facilities which are similar to jails or prisons. Moving a child into the adult court system exposes them to the mandatory sentencing guidelines which exist in most jurisdictions.
For the 10-year-old girl in Wisconsin who is accused of committing first-degree homicide, it is a Class A felony which can be sentenced to only life imprisonment. There are four articles of defense which can shift that penalty to something shorter, but it requires adequate provocation, unnecessary defensive force, the prevention of a felony, or the event occurred through coercion or necessity. There is very little wiggle room in these guidelines to address juveniles who are charged as an adult.
5. It creates more opportunities for youth to become repeat offenders.
The recidivism rates of juvenile offenders are typically much lower than they are for adults who are sentenced to jail or prison. General rates usually range from a low of 7% at 1 year of follow up to a high of 79% after 7 years of their initial release date. For youth offenders the rates range from a low of 0% after 1 year to a high of 41% after 5 years when following up if they were sentenced to a youth facility. When juveniles are with adults in the justice system, then their rates begin to climb to match those of the older offenders.
Statistics gathered from 15 different states revealed that juveniles prosecuted in adult court and released from a state prison had a recidivism rate of 82% compared to a 16% rate for their adult counterparts.
6. It prevents a child from having a fresh start even after they make necessary changes.
When children receive a conviction in the juvenile justice system, then their records are typically not accessible once they reach a specific age (usually 18 or 21, depending on their state). If the pre-teens or teens are tried and convicted as an adult, then this action stays on their permanent record. It becomes an accessible public record which employers, landlords, and others would research, which could limit their access to certain jobs or housing situations.
People who are convicted of a felony have an exceptionally difficult time trying to find employment in our current economy. Only 28 states have passed laws which ban employers from placing the conviction history of an individual on a job application. White males with a felony conviction receive a 17% callback rate, which is the highest of any demographic.
7. It does not reflect the understanding of the children in question.
There is an argument to be made that a 17-year-old committing a severe crime understands what they are doing and is willing to take on the risk of experiencing the potential for legal consequences because of their actions. When 9-year-old Cameron Kocher fired a rifle out of a window, accidentally striking his 7-year-old neighbor who was riding a snowmobile, that may not be the case.
When deciding to charge the young boy as an adult, the district attorney argued that Kocher lied in his answer – and lying is an “adult” response. He also fell asleep during the pretrial motions of the case, which showed a “lack of remorse” to prosecutors. We must remember that children and adults think differently, so trying to place adult responses on youth is not always appropriate.
8. It does not always reflect a measure of culpability.
Every day in the United States, offenders receive different sentences even if they caused the same harm because there are differences in culpability with each case. Adolescents are struggling with decision-making skills that are underdeveloped, immature, and impulsive. They do not experience future orientation in the same way that adults do. There is also a higher level of susceptibility to negative peer pressure in youth. Brain imaging reinforces the differences in physical structures that can impact the ability to reason or weigh the consequences of an action in children.
9. It does not provide them with youth-specific services.
Although there are advantages to having older teens in the adult system because they can take advantage of the available services, younger children require a juvenile-specific approach that is not available if they are tried and convicted as an adult. When kids enter the adult court system, then they do not usually have the same opportunity to acquire critical skills, experiences, or competencies that are critical to their future success as an adult. They are instead subjected to an environment where adult offenders become their teachers and idols, which can often lead to an ongoing cycle of crime.
10. It is a process which seems to disproportionally target minority demographics.
According to the 2016 juvenile justice report released by King County, WA, more than 85% of the defendants charged with robbery were 16 or 17 years old, with 50% of them using a firearm to commit their crime. Out of this group, African-American teens made up 43% of those who were filed upon during the study period for the report. When looking at the racial demographics of the county (which is where Seattle is located), only 6.2% of the population is African-American.
11. It does not give a defendant an opportunity to be tried by a “jury of their peers.”
In the United States, you must be old enough to vote in order to sit on a jury. When teens under the age of 18 are charged with an adult crime, then one could argue that they are not having their case reviewed by people who are authentic peers. Someone who is in their 40s is going to have a very different life perspective than someone who is 16 years old. Although any crime deserves a potential consequence no matter how severe it might be, there is also a need to create a fair outcome which takes every element of the experience into consideration and that may not always happen when the decision is made to try juveniles as adults.
12. It can eliminate civil responsibilities for actions at the household level.
If a juvenile is charged with an adult crime, then such an action may limit the civil responsibilities that the parents have for the conduct of their child. Because the individual is being treated as an adult in the situation, some jurisdictions limit how victims can civilly pursue for damages that they may have suffered in that situation. There are other parental rights which may disappear in this situation as well, further limiting the way the legal system can attempt to make things right. In the quest to achieve justice, it is very possible to lose sight of it.
13. It creates a lifetime of effects for the child in question.
Charging juveniles in adult court will often cause exorbitant expenses that can often worsen the poverty that a family experiences. The economic burden of court costs, legal fees, restitution, and visitation can have long-term consequences for everyone involved. It creates a lifetime of negative impacts for the child because they have multiple obstacles in their way to create the change that is necessary – assuming that they are not serving multiple decades in prison for their crime in the first place.
The pros and cons of juveniles being tried as an adult are beginning to find some resolution. The Supreme Court of the United States declared that all states must retroactively apply a band on mandatory death-in-prison sentences for juveniles. Justice Kennedy at the time even wrote that children who commit heinous crimes are capable of changing. There is a need to protect the general population against violent actions. We also have a responsibility as a society to give our children a fighting chance for success.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.