Should juvenile offenders be treated as adults?
November 1, 2014
Over the last few weeks we have discussed the issue of children who commit crime.This week we will wrap up this series by exploring the ongoing debate in the juvenile system between those who feel these offenders should be treated differently and those who feel they should be held accountable as adults.
Many of the reasons that those who feel juveniles should not be held to the same criminal standards as adults are the very same reasons the juvenile justice system was created. As we earlier stated, the brains of juveniles are not as fully formed as adults, and their reasoning abilities are not as developed.
Their abilities to control their impulses and anticipate the consequences of their actions are limited. These reasons are also the basis behind other laws that mandate age requirements to functions that require higher reasoning, such as voting, joining the military, or consuming alcohol.
Studies also show that many juvenile offenders grow up in environments with less than ideal circumstances. Many live in poverty, have parents or guardians who have issues with drugs or alcohol, and/or live in areas fraught with high crime rates and even gang activity.
They are often around negative influences, and can at times even be taught and compelled to commit these crimes by the very people in charge of their upbringing.
Many experts feel that you cannot expect a child brought up under these circumstances to understand the gravity of their actions when they have no one to teach them otherwise. This is one of the main reasons that the goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not punishment.
Many of the violent crimes committed by children are done so with weapons that due to their age they should not have had access to in the first place. Gun ownership is restricted to adults, and those adults are tasked with the safekeeping of those weapons.
It is imperative that children should have absolutely no access to these weapons, and if they do it is at the fault of an adult. Of course a juvenile who is dead-set on finding a weapon and committing a crime will do whatever they can to find one, but that does absolutely nothing to absolve the adult responsible for the safekeeping of the weapon of that responsibility.
On the other side of the argument lies the core belief that a crime is a crime, and the end result is the same regardless of who committed that crime.
Many believe that in a just society we all must live by the rules, and those rules are there not just to punish the offenders but serve as a deterrent. Of course the counter-argument to that is if children are not able to anticipate consequences appropriately, expecting rules to be a deterrent is unreasonable.
However, since the core belief is that the outcome should be punishment, not rehabilitation, those who feel children should be tried as adults don’t feel that is reason enough not to hold them equally responsible.
Furthermore the argument holds that if minors know they won’t be judged as harshly as adults that may actually be more willing to commit crime.
Others feel that a very important group is left out of the juvenile system; that of the victim and their families, and their right to see justice served. Many feel that juvenile offenders are penalized so lightly that it serves to be an injustice to the victims.
Additionally, those who commit violent crimes and receive lighter sentences in the goal of rehabilitation go free sooner, which allows them access to many potential future victims. Those who feel youthful offenders should be tried as adults also see it as a way to protect the rest of society from those who don’t follow its rules.
Finally, many who argue juveniles should be treated as adults in these situations often cite polls that show that a majority of US citizens agree. Polls conducted in the ‘80s, along with one as recent as 1993 show a majority of those responding believed children who commit crimes should be held to the same standards as their adult counterparts.
However more recent surveys, such as one conducted in 2007 by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP) shows that those beliefs may be changing. Their results were that “89 percent of those surveyed agreed that ‘almost all youth who commit crimes have the potential to change’ and more than 70 percent agreed that ‘incarcerating youthful offenders without rehabilitation is the same as giving up on them.’
Still another segment of the population believes that there should be some kind of “happy medium” to the two opposing sides; one that protects the public as well as these young offenders. The one thing most agree upon is that the system we have now, while well-intentioned, often misses it mark when it comes to rehabilitation and the safety of all of our citizens.
Tim Bates is captain of the detective division of the Rome NY Police Department.
Groove of the Day