The consequences of breaking the law in this country are among the harshest of any other country in the world. If you are an adult in the United States and you break the law, and are found guilty of the crime you are charged with, you can expect to receive a sentence that is commensurate to the crime committed. If you are a juvenile in the United States, you may receive an even harsher sentence than an adult might receive. The juvenile justice system in the United States is flawed. The following are examples of why I believe the criminal justice system of the United States needs to make some serious changes to protect our youth and ensure the psychological and cognitive development for those who are considered juvenile offenders.
Youth in the American criminal justice system were discordantly targeted by courts in the 1990’s because of the escalating violence of the crimes they were committing, specifically school shootings and other murder cases involving adolescents (Belenkos and Merlow, 2008). The heinous nature of these crimes caused the judicial system to come up with an updated set of guidelines that allowed for these youth criminals to be charged as adults. Somewhere along the way, prosecutors in some states have expanded the crimes in which juveniles can be charged as adults from murder I to such crimes as; murder II, attempted murder, assault with intent to commit murder, assault with intent to commit armed robbery, criminal sexual conduct I, armed robbery, and possession with intent to manufacture or deliver 650 grams of Schedule 1 or 2 substances (Burrow, 2008).
Some argue that this sort of punishment system is needed in order to deter those youth who would consider breaking the law. Others advocate that the system is too harsh on its juvenile offenders and something needs to be done in order to protect the innocence of our youth.
With all of the advances in modern psychology, a screening process needs to be implemented that ensures violent youth are given every necessary opportunity to develop with the same means as those who are not incarcerated. It is ignorant to assume that all youth who are capable of a certain crime are deemed unfit to be released to society for the rest of their lives. It is because children lack the proper capabilities to make certain decisions that we do not allow our youth population to vote until they are 18. Why do we believe that our youth are capable of formulating the same thought process as an adult when it comes to breaking the law?
According to Sellers and Arrigo (2009), over 200,000 adolescents in the United States are tried as adults every year. Approximately 12% are 16 or younger. There are 3 ways in which adolescents can be tried as adults; judicial waver, statutory waiver, and prosecutorial waiver. All 3 have their disadvantages when they are used to decide whether or not to try an adolescent as an adult.
In a judicial waiver, the future of the youth offender lies in the hands of the interpretation of a juvenile judge. The judge bases his decision on the seriousness of the crime and the offenders prior record. In a statutory waiver, a case can be transferred to criminal court based solely on a state’s juvenile court legislature. For example, a state may say that anyone over the age of 16 that commits murder will be charged as an adult. A prosecutorial waiver gives the power of decision to the prosecutor on whether or not an adolescent should sit trial as an adult (Sellers & Arrigo, 2009). In this democratic system of checks and balances, there should be a more stringent process put into place that allows an expert panel to deliberate whether or not a child is deemed psychologically and cognitively fit to stand trial as an adult. The truth of the matter is, we all mature at different rates, with some studies showing that our brains do not reach full development until our early-to-mid-20s (Belenkos & Merlow, 2008).
Sellers and Arrigo (2009) argue that adolescents are not capable of understanding the long-term consequences of their actions and are therefore prone to making more impulsive decisions. Factors such as peer pressure and an absence of independent reasoning effect their decision making process. Because of this, punishment alone is not enough to deter our youth from committing violent crimes. Instead, they suggest a juvenile justice system that is based on guidelines that teach juveniles to behave because it is their moral duty, not because they will be punished if they do not.
To me, the most disgusting fact that I came across during my research was that juvenile offenders that commit violent crimes, and are convicted in adult criminal courts, are likely to receive a harsher sentence than their adult counterparts receive for committing the same crime. In many cases, adolescents will serve time until the age of 21 in a juvenile detention center, and then be transferred to an adult corrections facility to finish out the sentence after the age of 21. In such situations, the adolescent ends up serving more time than the adult (Belenkos & Merlow, 2008). Given the different maturity levels of the juvenile versus the adult offender, this is unacceptable. Somewhere along the line our court system failed our youth.
The beauty of our country is that nothing is ever etched in stone. Steps can be taken to ensure our youth that are convicted of serious crimes are not left to rot in our prison system and instead are given the opportunity to mature into adults before judgment is made that could condemn them to life behind bars because of an adolescent mistake.
Belenkos, P. & Merlow, A. (2008). Juvenile justice: The legacy of punitive policy. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 6(1), 28-46.
Burrow, J. (2008). Reverse waiver and the effects of legal, statutory, and secondary legal factors on sentencing outcomes for juvenile offenders. Crime and Delinquency, 54(1), 34-64.
Sellers, B.G., & Arrigo, B.A. (2009). Adolescent transfer, developmental maturity, and adjudicative competence: An ethical and justice policy inquiry. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 99(2), 435-487.