Friday, December 15

Juvenile Sentencing in US and the Difference between Youths and Adults

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The Difference between Youth and Adults

Children offenders are still growing through the turbulent adolescent years.  They are seeking for their identities.  Their values are not set yet.  And their physical and mental capacities are not fully achieved. These are the very reasons that young offenders need rehabilitation and would make excellent candidates.  They are still in the learning stage therefore they are better able to assimilate new values and new ideas compared to adults.

Most people think that Life-Without-Parole ( LWOP) sentences are meted only to crimes that are heinous in nature. Not so.  Children guilty of felony murder are meted with this kind of punishment too.  Felony murder is when teens take part in felony and someone was killed by other participants.  Even if the child did not intend to kill the victim or have no prior knowledge that other participants are armed.

All over the US a total of 26 percent of felony murder were senteced to life without parole (LWOP).  The ‘super predators’ tag further fanned the public’s fear and unnecessary apprehension that the society is being attacked by vicious teenagers.  But records show that only a few of the child offenders sentenced to life without parole have prior criminal records.  A bigger percentage of LWOP child offenders or around 59 percent are actually first-time offenders. 

Justice for youth offenders must consist of rehabilitative policies.  It is important to take into consideration the fact that the offender is not entirely blameworthy due to his age.  The prosecutors must look into the gravity of the crime and the extent of blame on the offender.  Culpability is what differentiates children offenders from their adult counterparts.   Children may be as capable as adults of committing grievous and heinous offenses but the culpability or blameworthiness should be different because children are immature and incapable of making logical conclusions yet just like the adults.
Their youth and inexperience do not equip them with wisdom yet which we often acquire as we aged.  In meting out punishments to kids, this fact should be taken into consideration. Children of course can tell right from wrong.  This is because they are merely following what they are told not out of their own convictions.  They may think that it is wrong to kill but they do not really understand what killing actually means, what are the implications if they do kill someone or what makes it wrong to begin with.  Children since they are immature are less capable of controlling their impulses, are not adept in utilizing their reasoning capabilities or are even incapable of  considering the consequences of their actions.  They cannot really fully fathom the impact of their actions.
Since children are still growing up, being tried as adults and worse, being meted with life without parole sentences, would tantamount to saying that their characters and their behaviors at the time the crime was committed were already well-formed. 

The Difference According to Psychology

Psychologists conducted different studies on children and the conclusions they drew are apparent:  children and teenagers are more irrational and immature than adults.  This is common sense knowledge which all of us knows.

Psychologists concluded that teenagers and children are less capable of understanding the long-term results of their acts, are prone to peer pressure when making decisions and have tendencies to act impusively.  This makes them less capable of arriving at rational and informed decisions.

Psychologists attributed this marked differences to the cognitive or psychosocial differences of the adults and children.  This is because children simply think differently than the way adults do as per cognitive theories. And, psychosocial theories point out the fact that children do not have the social and emotional capabilities acquired through the years that adults develop. 

In numerous research, psychologists established that adolescence think only in the present or are present-oriented and are prone to ignore or dismiss the outcomes and implications of their actions as trivial.  Teenagers often have short-term vision often looking into impact of their actions only for the next few days when deciding. A study conducted on teenagers aged sixteen and eighteen revealed that only 25 percent of sixteen year olds and 42 percent of eighteen year olds would consider the long-term implications of their decisions. 

Psychological research time and again also pointed out the obvious fact that adolescents tend to base their decisions on emotions instead of reason or logic.  Further studies confirmed that stressful situations only serve to heighten the tendency for children let emotions guide the choices they make.  When under extreme pressure, children tend to be more impulsive in the decision-making process. 

The Difference According to Neuroscience

Neuroscientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brain to determine the reasons for physiological characteristics of adolescence.  The MRI studies show that children are less physiologically developed when it comes to controlling themselves. 

Neuroscientists discovered that ther is a marked difference between the brains of adolescents and those of adults.  The biological differences between adults and children are based on age continuum and that adolescent brain do acquire adult capabilities later on, the speed of which depends on the person. They were able to identify patterns of change in adolescents that starts with puberty and continues into young adulthood. 

The main difference observed by neuroscientists lies in the frontal lobe.  Teenagers’ frontal lobe have different numbers and kinds of cell matter and is different in features compared to the adult brain.  The frontal lobe functions in “regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.”  Children’s frontal lobe are not developed enough to do these functions.  Transformation occurs during puberty that improves the individual’s capacity to conduct decision-making processes that consider the long-term consequences. 

The cell and neural developments provide the basis that youths up to eighteen are less capable of rational decision making than adults.  Daniel Weinberger, director of the Clinical Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health explains that a developed frontal lobe “allows us to act on the basis of reason. It can preclude an overwhelming tendency for action. . . . It also allows us to consciously control our tendency to have impulsive behavior (Weinberger 2001: p. A13).”

In explaining youth violence, Weinberger has this to say:  

“I doubt that most school shooters intended to kill, in the adult sense of permanently ending a life and paying the consequences for the rest of their lives. Such intention would require a mature prefrontal cortex, which could anticipate the future and rationally appreciate cause and effect . . . The [juvenile]brain does not have the biological machinery to inhibit impulses in the service of long-term planning (Weinberger 2001: p. A13).”


“Adult time for adult crime” policies which means that if children can commit crimes like adults then they should serve time like adults.  Therefore, currently, the nature of children’s sentences does not differ with that of adults. 

Contrary to what most believe, the sentencing of children in adult courts has not really solve the rising criminal problems.  Instead other problems were created in the process with the convicted child as the victim.  It is not unsual for child prisoners to be victioms of child abuse, molestation and neglect in adult prisons.

The ‘adult time for adult crime’ policy has led to the incarceration thousands of juveniles with adult criminals all over the country especially in Florida.  These policies are based on state waiver policies which allowed youth offenders to be tried and sentenced as adults.

Sentencing children similar to adults has not really accomplished the goals of punishment which are deterrence, incapacitation, retribution or rehabilitation.  This policy has only served to exposed children offenders to violence and neglect.  This method has only make youthful offenders become hardened criminals and does not permit rehabilitation for renewed lives.  Delinquent youths should be sentenced as youthful offenders and not as adults.  They should be given fair chance to turn their lives around because they are in their formative years and are therefore capable of learning new ways or be rehabilitated unlike adults.

Punishment should fit the crime. In view of this, the nature of the offense and the culpability of the offender must be taken into consideration. Children should not be tried as adults or be meted with lighter sentences than that of adults because their blameworthiness is not equal to that of adults even if the crime is similar.

In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, court ruled that execution of child offenders was unconstitutional because children are less culpable, prone to immature and irresponsible attitudes and are easily influenced by external pressures. 


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