Should Juveniles Be Tried as Adults Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

life have the ability (and actually do) impact each and every member of society. Crime is one such issue that crosses economic, ethnic, political, religious, and social backgrounds. One reason why crime is such a paramount issue in modern society is that it impacts individuals emotionally, financially, physically, etc. And instills a deep-rooted sense of fear in those who have been victimized. In addition, while there are a multitude of explanations for why individuals (both adults and juveniles) commit crime, no single reason explains all of the complex economic, emotional, psychological, and sociological facets associated with this issue.

In recent years, there have been numerous high profile cases involving juvenile offenders. Some of the most common yet horrifying examples of such crimes include the Columbine shootings (as well as many other school shootings involving teenagers), group killings of teachers as well as peers, etc. Not only have the number of crimes involving juvenile offenders reached new highs, but the level of violence associated with such crimes has magnified. In response to the perceived skyrocketing in juvenile crime, states throughout the country have passed a variety of measures to send more juvenile offenders to criminal court. Common features of such legislation include: lowering the age at which juveniles may be prosecuted as adults; greatly expanding the categories of crimes for which juveniles are automatically prosecuted in criminal court; giving prosecutors the exclusive authority to decide which juveniles are charged as adults; and limiting the discretion of judges to overturn decisions by law enforcement officials and prosecutors.

This paper analyzes and examines whether juveniles should be tried as adults. Part II discusses the literature surveyed. In Part III, issues relating to the collection of literature are outlined. Part IV summarizes the findings. Lastly, this paper concludes with recommendations for improving how the criminal justice system treats juvenile offenders.


There is a large array of literature concerning juvenile offenders and the issue of whether juveniles should be tried as adults. Presently there are three possible mechanisms used to allow juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. Judicial waiver involves a juvenile court judge transferring an adolescent to criminal court based on, among other things, the seriousness of the crime, the offender's history, and the chances of the offender repeating his or her act. (Steinberg). Direct file policies allow the prosecutor to decide whether to file charges against a juvenile offender in criminal or juvenile court. (Steinberg). Finally, under statutory exclusion, certain categories of juveniles are automatically tried in adult criminal court. (Steinberg). Statutory exclusion is generally determined by a combination of age and the seriousness of the offense. (Steinberg).

One of the most common themes in journals and periodicals regarding whether juvenile offenders should be tried as adults is the presentation of the advantages and disadvantages. Common arguments in favor of trying juveniles as adults include: (1) crimes such as rape, murder, and assault are adult crimes; (2) allowing a juvenile who committed a serious crime to serve a lesser sentence because of their age is harmful to society and the victims; (3) their records are public knowledge; and (4) the juvenile will receive harsher sentences. (Miller; Frontline). Arguments in opposition to trying juvenile offenders as adults include: (1) juveniles will be in correctional facilities with adults who may be more serious offenders and hardcore criminals; (2) the juvenile may not receive the education and treatment they would if they were in a juvenile facility; (3) they might be physically, emotionally, or psychologically harmed; and (4) they might be vulnerable to pressure from other inmates. (Miller; Frontline). Both arguments have their respective merits, both in theory and in application, and the ideal (yet unimplemented) solution would be to address all concerns of each side and strike a balance, a hybrid approach to punishing juvenile offenders that maintains the focus on rehabilitation (at least for non-violent offenders) yet appropriately punishes criminals.

While the arguments concerning whether juvenile offenders should be tried as adults provide a stimulating intellectual challenge for academics and others, there are other issues that must be addressed in determining the most effective approach to the issue. First, at what age does an individual become competent to stand trial, i.e., competent enough to participate effectively in his or her defense? (Steinberg). Next, at what age does an individual reach the level of adult responsibility and capability, i.e., a level of maturity sufficient to appreciate the wrong of his or her actions and accept responsibility for what has taken place? (Steinberg). Lastly, at what age do individuals cease to be good candidates for rehabilitation? (Steinberg).

Although there has not been extensive research into the deterrent effects of the stricter laws making it easier for juvenile offenders to be tried as adults, the evidence that does exist indicates that deterrent effects are minimal or non-existent, and that, in fact, trying juveniles in criminal court may actually result in higher rates of re-offending. (Frontline; Juszkieicz). This evidence contradicts the two main assumptions underlying such legislation: (1) young offenders will receive sentences in the adult criminal system which are harsher and more proportional to their crimes; and (2) the threat of this harsher punishment will result in lowered juvenile crime rates. (Frontline; Juszkieicz). While there has not been extensive research comparing the lengths of prison sentences received by juveniles convicted in criminal court with those who remained in the juvenile system, the research indicates that juveniles convicted in criminal court, particularly serious and violent offenders, are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than juveniles retained in the juvenile system. (Frontline; Juszkieicz). Despite this, however, they actually serve only a fraction of the sentences imposed, in many cases less time than they would have served in a juvenile facility. (Frontline; Juszkieicz).

To date, there has been scant research on whether trying juvenile offenders as adults resulted in lower juvenile crime rate. So far the studies have found that there was no evidence to support that the laws had the intended effect. Criminologists Simon Singer and David McDowell evaluated the effects of New York's Juvenile Offender Law on the rate of serious juvenile crime. This landmark piece of legislation was passed in 1978, and lowered the age of criminal court jurisdiction to thirteen for murder, and to fourteen for rape, robbery, assault, and violent categories of burglary. Singer and McDowell analyzed juvenile arrest rates in New York for four years prior to the enactment of the law, and six years after. These rates were compared with those for control groups of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds in Philadelphia, and with slightly older offenders in New York. The researchers found that the threat of adult criminal sanctions had no effect on the levels of serious juvenile crime.

A later study by social scientists Eric Jensen and Linda Metsger reached a similar conclusion. Jensen and Metsger sought to evaluate the deterrent effect of the transfer statute passed in Idaho in 1981, which required that juveniles charged with certain serious crimes (murder, attempted murder, robbery, forcible rape, and mayhem) be tried as adults.

They examined arrest rates for five years before and five years after the passage of the law, and found no evidence that it had any deterrent effect on the level of juvenile crime in Idaho. Jensen and Metsger also compared the arrest rates for the target offenses with those in neighboring states Montana and Wyoming, which were demographically similar to Idaho, and had in place a discretionary waiver system similar to the system Idaho had before the new legislation. They found that juvenile arrests for the offenses targeted by the legislation actually increased in Idaho, while decreasing in the other two states.

Recidivism is another issue to consider in examining whether juvenile offenders should be tried as adults. Two recent large-scale studies indicate that juveniles who receive harsher penalties when tried as adults tend to re-offend sooner and more often than those treated in the juvenile system. Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Fagan compared 15- and 16-year-olds charged with robbery and burglary in four similar communities in New York and New Jersey. Both states had similar statutes for first- and second-degree robbery and first-degree burglary. However, in New York, 15 and 16-year-olds' cases originated in criminal court, while in New Jersey they were adjudicated in juvenile court. The sample consisted of 400 robbery offenders and 400 burglary offenders randomly selected.

Fagan examined the recidivism rates of offenders from each state after their release. He found that while there were no significant differences in the effects of criminal vs. juvenile court processing for burglary offenders, there were substantial differences in recidivism among robbery offenders. Seventy-six percent of robbers prosecuted in criminal court were rearrested, as compared with 67% of those processed in juvenile court. A significantly higher proportion of the criminal group were subsequently re-incarcerated (56% vs. 41%). And those that did re-offend did so sooner after their release.

1996 Florida study authored by Northeastern University researcher Donna Bishop also found that juveniles…

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