Juvenile Sentencing in US

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In the past, during colonial times, child offenders were tried as adults.  This practice was changed in the nineteenth century when children’s welfare advocates clamored for the introduction of changes to juvenile sentencing for the basic reason that children can be potentially rehabilitated and lead changed lives.

In 1899, a number of states have acknowledged this fact and started establishing reform houses for juvenile delinquents.  A juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899 to provide “open-ended, informal, and highly flexible policies to rehabilitate” for child offenders.   By 1925, all states except for two, had established similar system.
Children accusedof crimes were given special treatment under law in the past.  The policies were more lenient when the accused or convicted person was a child. Children were referred to juvenile justice system which served to protect children from the retibutive nature of adult system and at the same time provided these children with the opportunities for rehabilitation which would make them good members of the adult society later on.  The juvenile court is intended to be more flexible and pro-active in its approach instead of using the just-deserts policy in the adult court.  Children were held accountable for their actions but at the same time protected from the results of adult conviction.

In mid-1980s the US saw an increase in violent crime particularly those perpetrated by adolescents.  Ten years before 1986, homicides using guns committed by youth offenders fourteen to seventeen years old were pegged at a fixed rate of 965 per year.  After 1986, the numbers rose steadily reaching its peak in 1994 with 3,337 homicides. 

Confidence in the juvenile justice system waned in the process as people question its practicality under the circumstances. Violent juvenile crimes led people to believe that child offenders should be held more accountable for their actions and accorded no special treatment in order to deter these juvenile delinquents from committing crimes.

However, later statistics showed a significant dropped in crimes committed by young people. Homicides committed by youth dropped after 1994. In 2002, the rate was lower than 1976 youth homicide rate.
Clearly, the increase was not a permanent situation. Youth homicide was a temporary setback.   However, the country reacted negatively to youth crimes.  Princeton University professor John DiIulio called the youth offenders as ‘super-predator’. His grim prediction was  “by the year 2010, there will be 270,000 more juvenile super-predators on the streets than there were in 1990.” 

An ensuing public uproar occurred in the process.  Juvenile justice system was put under scrutiny. Concerns were mounting on the rise and violent nature of youth crimes.  Most of these crimes were in cold blood and premeditated.  People demanded stiffer punishment for the child offenders.

Politicians seized the chance.  They passed laws that change regulations on child offenders. Consequently, states altered their provisions on juvenile homicides and opted for harsher criminal policies.  The change was swift and there was not enough time allotted to study the long-term effects of imposing stiffer penalties to children and trying them in adult courts. 

Adult Trial on Children

The simple formula followed by legislatures was this:  youth who commit “adult” crimes should be tried like adults.  As of 1997, all states except for three – Nebraska, New York and Vermont – have adopted this policy in trying child offenders.  Youth offenders found themselves tried and sentenced in adult criminal courts especially for serious crimes such as murder, robbery and drug dealing.  To increase the adult trial child offenders, five methods were used:

• Voluntary transfer – juveniles voluntarily transferred their cases to adult courts

• Mandatory transfer – transfer of trial of juveniles in adult court is mandatory or required in certain cases.

• Withdrawal of Juvenile Jurisdiction: in some cases, juvenile courts do not have jurisdiction over the child depending on the nature of the offense and the age of the child.  For instance, if a child committed first degree murder, the crime can only be tried in adult court.

• Discretion to Direct File:  this allows prosecutors the choice to file charges against youth offenders in adult criminal court instead of trying the case in juvenile courts.

• Lowering the Age for Adult Court Jurisdiction:  the age at which youth offenders are allowed to be tried in adult trials are lowered.

Children Tried just like Adults

The direct result of transferring juvenile cases to criminal court is that the youths are subjected to similar sanctions as adult criminals.  The prevailing law in these cases is all children convicted of crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment must be sentenced as adults.   Florida leads in the number of young offenders tried in adult courts.
Based on the table we can see that in some states, adult sentencing for a minor may prohibit meting the punisment of life without parole sentence.  Like in Louisiana, a child as young as 14 years old may be tried in an adult court depending on the crime but cannot be sentenced to life without parole since the minimum age for that kind of sentence is 15 years old.

Prosecutors are given the discretion to have the minor tried in adult court.  The problem is no judicial supervision or public accountability for the decision is required.  Prosecutors also do not submit in writing the reasons for such move. 

Transfer hearings would have given the child a chance to be heard in a juvenile court before being sent to a criminal court.  But the number of transfer hearings have dwindled through the years.  In 1996 the percentage of transfer hearings was pegged at 36 percent. In 2000, it was only set at a low 13 percent.

Youth or age is often not a factor in trying children in criminal courts.  The child offender even if he is just ten years old must go through the same rigorous pre-trial and trial procedures and all the things that adult defendants do.  The child and not his parents or guardian has to make some difficult decisions which at his age may not be appropriate or will be extremely taxing on the him such as:

– Whether to follow his lawyer’s instructions or not
– To testify or not
– To dish out information to the prosecution
– To go on trial or not
– Accept plea bargain or not
– The extent of information shared to police and defense attorneys

It is easy to tell that children are incapable of handling such kind of legal responsibilities or cope with such kind of pressure but courts rarely consider this.  MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice conducted long term studies on children’s trial competency.  Factors considered in the study include:

• children’s understanding of the basic judicial process and what are their rights as defendants,
• their ability to understand the facts and draw conclusions from them,
• and their ability to make decisions without pressures from authority figures

The research reveals that young adolescents especially the fifteen and under age range are not developmentally and mentally capable to be legally “competent” to undergo trial.  Children tried as adults do not enjoy special safeguards and care which were required by international law. Adolescents sent to adult courts are deprived of rehabilitiative sentencing options that a juvenile court could extend to them.  These sentencing options would have helped them change the course of their lives and turn into law-abiding members of the society. 

Sentencing of Youth to Life without Parole

Once children are tried in adult courts, prison sentences that are imposed to adults can be imposed to them too such as the life without parole (LWOP) sentence.  Life without parole is meted to crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, sex crimes and others.  Around 93 percent of the youth sentenced to life without parole were homicide cases. 


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