The Negative Consequences of Treating Minors as Adults in Criminal Cases
"Old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the crime;" this is an old, yet still very controversial statement when contemplating whether or not juveniles should be tried as adults in certain circumstances (Maroney 1). There are many who believe that anyone who knowingly commits a crime must suffer the same consequences, regardless of age, race, or creed. However, treating children as adults in criminal contexts can have incredibly negative impacts on the psychological state and future of any given child. Essentially, it is clear that charging and sentencing children as adults produces more harm than good, despite opposition calling for harsher punishments in an adult system.
In today's legal environment, there have been more and more media reports of cases of heinous crimes being committed by mere children, and thus the demand of treating those children as adults within the punitive system is also increasing. The United States allows for minors to be treated as adults during criminal proceedings depending on the nature of the crime and the age they were at the time the crime was committed and the ongoing trial that followed. When more violent or serious crimes are committed, like murder, there are possibilities for children to be tried as adults (Spohn & Hemmens 180). Essentially, many states around the country are making it easier and more accepted to try juveniles as adults, depending on the type of crime that they had committed (Maroney 1). For example, Tennessee has no age limit in place that would hinder prosecution moving the trial and sentencing of a juvenile to an adult court. Thus, a five-year-old convicted of murder could essentially be sentenced as an adult. Although that example is unlikely to occur, it is still legally permissible in the state. Other states are also following suit, and have begun adopting laws and regulations that allow for younger and younger children to be treated as adults in trials and sentencing. Recently in 2008, Minnesota passed Emily's Law, where "persons as young as 14 can be charged as adults" (Collins 1). This came after the gruesome murder and sexual assault of a two-year-old child by a thirteen-year-old adolescent. Kansas and Vermont have laws allowing children as young as ten, with Colorado having a statute with twelve years old being the minimum age for charging juveniles as adults (Collins 1). Colorado, like other states as well, also bases whether or not a juvenile is charged as an adult on past criminal history (State of Colorado 2). Many states across the country even have laws that permit sentencing minors to life without the chance of parole (Cohen 1). Moreover, many of these laws passed allowed greater decision making from the prosecution, with judges being circumnavigated in terms of the actual decision to charge a child as an adult. There are even some states, such as Wisconsin, that hand over 17-year-olds who commit any crime, violent or not, to adult courts (Wisconsin Council on Children & Families 1). According to the research, prosecutors focus on prior history of children; "they're psychological, their home life, their history, any run-ins with the law, all kinds of very important info so that we can decide on whether we think as prosecutors a child should go to adult court" (Stawicki 1). Many of these minors were even held in adult jails during the waiting period of the resolution of their cases. The trend of stepping up punishments for criminal kids began in the 1990s and continued into the new millennium. The concept is meant to get potential juvenile criminals off the streets before they can become more hardened criminals. As such, "each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent directly or transferred to the adult system, known as criminal court," with an average of 7,500 juveniles in adult jails and prisons daily (Cohen 1). Yet, there are many who voice staunch opposition that continues to place potential legislation and court actions into question.
Those who support provisions that allow juveniles to be charged and sentenced as adults in certain circumstances believe that the severity of particular crimes warrants greater severity in punishment. These people believe that any individual who was willing to commit a heinous crime, like murder, must suffer the consequences, regardless of age. Another major concern supporters of such actions have is the length of juvenile sentences. Many juveniles who are sentenced fro heinous crimes receive much shorter sentences that comparable crimes committed by adults (Collins 1). Supporters believe that criminals should be held accountable for their actions, and have to serve punishments that are warranted by the crimes the individuals have committed.
Despite what supporters would like to believe, the evidence shows that juvenile crime is actually on a slow, yet steady decline. Thus, there is no need to fear the "juvenile superpredators" to the extreme that many in the media or law enforcement advocate, and as such decisions to try juveniles as adults is often based on unsound evidence of increasing juvenile crime rates (Maroney 1). When the trend to charge children as adults really took off in the 1990s, there were high rates of crimes committed by minors (Cohen 1). However, in recent years, there has been a significant shift. The research shows a clear decline in juvenile crime. As such, those juveniles who do still commit crimes should not be held with prejudice based on trends that are no longer prevalent in American society.
There are many more arguments that actually argue against sentencing juveniles as adults based on developmental and physical needs that are unique to younger age groups. Children and teens are nowhere near the developmental or physical range of an adult, and thus have very unique needs that must be addressed, even while serving prison sentences. Essentially, the argument here is that kids "may not know the difference between right and wrong" (Collins 1). Most kids who are committing crimes show a clear lack of maturity among other behavioral or mental issues that would prevent them from making appropriate decisions when faced with particular situations. Many psychologists suggests that children and teens are unable to pick up on the same types of cues that adults can that would lead them to stop their criminal behavior or actions (Collins 1). Many psychologists assert the fact that a child's brain is not fully developed until the early to mid twenties; as such "a youth shouldn't face the same consequences as an adult for the same crime" because of the clear gap in development and maturity that would allow the adult to know better than to commit the crime or to be persuaded by knowledge of the consequences for committing that crime (Stawicki 1). Many children who commit the types of serious crimes that would land them in adult courts often have histories of abuse or mental illness that was ignored or neglected (Spohn & Hemmens 180). Thus, these kids are often negatively impacted by the lack of action by the adults around them, causing them to be misguided in their already vulnerable state. As such, many believe that is wrong to punish them as adults, when they really need help more than anything else.
In relation to the idea that kids are not as capable of making proper decisions because of their lack of development and maturity, there is the concept that adult prisons can actually make their conditions worsen. Here, the research also suggests that "they're developmentally less mature and responsible and more impulsive, erratic and vulnerable to negative peer pressure" (Maroney 1). As such, sentencing juveniles in adult facilities can actually do much more harm than good because it exposes them to experiences and influences that may only aggravate the already negative elements within their lives and mental capabilities. Many juveniles who enter into adult prisons are either preyed upon or actually leave their prison sentence being more of a hardened criminal than they were when they went in. Young juveniles are easy prey for dangerous adult criminals. At the same time, kids who go into adult prisons as minors are opened up to new experiences of criminal enterprise and activity within the prison the system. They are essentially "schooled" in other crimes (Maroney 1). This creates a situation where juveniles serving time in adult prisons will often come out as lifetime criminals, as they have gotten deeper entrenched into crime while serving time with other dangerous criminals during a very impressionable and vulnerable period of their lives. Thus, such kids "get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious" after being incarcerated in an adult facility in comparison to serving time in a juvenile facility (Cohen 1).
Moreover, creating exceptions for the rules of separation between child and adult in prison circumstances does not make sense in the outside legal structure that regulates what juveniles can and cannot do in their everyday…