Should we Punish Children as Adults?

The 1990s saw an increase in the concerns that were attributed to the rising juvenile deliquescence in the country. According to (Myers, 2016) this period was characterized by a rise in juvenile crime rates and an increase in what the author terms as “juvenile predators”. As a result, a number of reforms in the juvenile justice system were undertaken in the country. The juvenile justice practitioners and policy makers developed a number of policies, procedures, and sanctions, which were meant to curb the increasing juvenile crimes by increasing the sentencing options, juvenile accountability, information sharing and public safety. This according to (Heilbrun et al., 2017) was to help the children and youths to undergo successful rehabilitation and prevent them from engaging in criminal activities in the future. However, increasing incidences of serious crimes among the children has increased debate on whether children should be punished as adults. It is of the position that children should not be punished as adult, but rather should be treated as juveniles since their actions are products of their developmental stages.

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The focus of this paper will be to examine whether juveniles should be punished as adults. The paper will critically examine the latest published academic journal articles. In order to achieve these goals, the published journal articles were searched using the keywords “juvenile justice”, “juvenile courts”, and “juvenile delinquency”. The search produced over 17,800 results which were then analyzed to ensure that only relevant articles related with the topic were selected. The articles were then examined to ensure only articles that were considered academic sources were used. This included examining the articles to ensure they were current, published, peer-reviewed and from authoritative sources like government bodies.

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The treatment of juveniles as adults is in itself not only wrong but negates the initial reasons that preceded the development of the juvenile justice system. The view of the juvenile delinquents in 1990s policy trends saw the development of the Get Tough Movement in order to facilitate incapacitation and deterrence. These policy changes would continue to develop and saw its expansion into the transfer of the juveniles into adult courts (Baker, Cleary, Pickett & Gertz, 2013). Also a number of policy measures and procedures were put in place by policy makers and practitioners in the criminal justice system owing to increased public outcry regarding the increase in juvenile crimes (Pealer, Terry & Adams, 2017). An example of such notable procedure has been highlighted in (Kurlychek, 2016) where the authors points that the juvenile justice courts have the ability to waive certain youths from the juvenile system to the adult system.

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Kurlychek (2016) asserts that the traditional discretionary waivers that were often witnessed in the juvenile courts have since been replaced by broader statutory exclusions and expanded prosecutorial waivers. The increased scope of these waivers tends to bar the increasing number of youths from enjoying the juvenile court benefits. Originally, the waiver was done based on the Supreme Court ruling sought to guarantee the juveniles the rights that adults enjoy, which were not available in the juvenile courts. Although the waivers would guarantee that juveniles enjoyed rights as defined in the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments, it posed potential risks to the juveniles.

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            Similarly, a number of landmark cases and judicial interpretations have greatly altered the way juveniles are viewed in the criminal justice system in the United States. The increase in the advocacy and the desire to expand on the rights of the juvenile offenders led to the creation of the first juvenile court in Illinois in 1899 under the Illinois Juvenile Act of 1899. Steinberg (2013) in his study on the juvenile justice system has identified the various landmark cases that involved the Supreme Court decisions on the culpability of juveniles. In 1988, in Thomson v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that the development in contemporary standards meant that juveniles are not capable of acting with a degree of culpability that can justify ultimate penalty. In Roper v. Simmons Supreme Court opinion of 2005, the judges ruled that as it is known scientifically and among the parents, the youths lack maturity and have underdeveloped sense of responsibility. The 2010 Supreme Court decision involving Graham v. Florida ruled that it was unconstitutional for individuals under the age of 18 to be sentenced to life without parole. Finally, the Miller v. Alabama Supreme Court ruling of 2012 held that the states may not mandate life without parole for juvenile offenders even when such offenses involved homicide.

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            In addition to the Supreme Court landmark decisions concerning juvenile offenders are the roles of public opinion in shaping the juvenile justice system. Artello, Hayes, Muschert & Spencer (2015) asserts that one of the biggest concerns regards the way the issues that affect the juveniles, their development and youth delinquency are understood in the neoliberal world. According to the authors, the perception of the neoliberal world is that of ubiquity of risks, and an increase in the trends and policy developments that prefer punitive measures towards the control and prevention of juvenile criminal behaviors. Owing to the vigilance towards risks, the public have increased their focus of risk-consciousness focus on the youths, thereby shaping the juvenile justice policy through their opinions.

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Having examined the developments in the juvenile justice system, it is imperative that these developments be put into the juvenile offender context and examine whether such offenders warrant punishment as adult offenders. First, we should note that the founders of the juvenile courts not only envisioned the creation of a system of juvenile courts that would shield children from the harms of the adult courts, but also to offer punishment and advancement of the interests of the children (Mears et al., 2016). This means the real initial purpose for which juvenile courts were developed was to rehabilitate juveniles from committing crimes and not to be subjected to punitive measures as adults. According to the authors, in adult courts, the determination of guilt takes precedence, whereas the juvenile courts is guided under parens patriae or simple put as the parents of the nation. This supports the fact that recognized children as people who needed assistance and not punitive measures as those that adults receive in adult courts. In acting as parens patriae, the juvenile courts are supposed to provide a form of deterrence and diversion in order to reduce juvenile crimes and recidivism. These juvenile courts were supposed to admit children and youths in the interest of the public and the state, and on their behalf, offer corrective measures that were geared towards the rehabilitation of their behaviors.

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In addition, the juvenile court waivers in the juvenile justice system have shifted the focus of the traditional juvenile system into a more punitive system raising fundamental questions. The one fundamental question that needs to be answered is, if really the creation of the juvenile courts was based on the idea that children are different from adults and that the adult prisons and jails are detrimental to them, then why put them under trial as adults? Would this not subject the juveniles to negative impacts? The first question is brad and can be answered by examining the real mission of the juvenile courts in the United States and the preceding landmark cases. Most of the Supreme Court decisions allowed for juvenile court waivers and other related juvenile rights were based on the rationale of increasing the scope of juvenile rights. On the impact of waivers, it meant that juvenile offenders would have to undergo trial in the adult courts, affording them to be punished as adults. It would also subject the juveniles to the public scrutiny as the cases moved to trial courts, making such punishments terse and causing negative impact on the juvenile offenders.

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            The support against subjecting punitive nature of measures against juvenile offenders is not only supported by the initial vision that saw the development of the juvenile policy and creation of the juvenile courts in the beginning 80s. Research has shown that public opinion greatly shapes the juvenile justice system trends. According to (Miller & Applegate, 2014) the policy developments in the juvenile justice system has been subject of public opinion. The authors further note that the public favor a host of progressive policies that are geared towards preventions, early intervention programs, and rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Given that the major goal of juvenile crime prevention is to protect the public and guarantee their safety, against the rising crime rates among the children and youths in the country, it can be concluded from that the public not only shows disregard of punitive measures but seems to regard preventive measures which research has shown to be more tenable and produces long-term positive outcomes. For instance, (Aizer & Doyle, 2015) highlights the negative relationship between the punitive measures on juveniles such as incarcerations on labor market and education. Juvenile incarceration has negative effects as it reduces their chances of completing their high school education and can as increase the likelihood of higher incarceration for violent crimes during their adulthood.

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            The other major shortcoming of the punitive measures as a strategy in the prevention of the juvenile crimes is its disregard the role of the human body development among the juveniles in their roles in crimes and their criminal tendencies. According to (Monahan, Steinberg & Piquero, 2015) since the mid and late 90s, the advancement in human brain and body science has increased the available information on human growth and development. The authors point that children develop in a ways that are different and these have huge implications in their treatment in the juvenile justice system. Also, they point that children have unique processes of making their decisions compared to those of the adults, with a continuation in their brain development and maturation in mid-20s.

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            Cauffman, Shulman, Bechtold & Steinberg (2015) points that the recent scientific studies have improved the understanding that underpins the mature decision making. The most important finding in as it relates with the evolution of maturity among the children is the understanding that maturity involves a combination of factors such as the growth in cognitive ability, the ability to resist peer pressure, ability to consider the long-term consequences on one’s actions, and the ability to resist impulsive urges. These characteristics and competencies emerge and develop at various stages in the human development life cycle. The author further shows that among the children and youths in lack of complete cognitive development which hinders their ability to make rational decisions. Therefore punishing children and youths as adults would be punishing them for undergoing their development stages in life.

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            Moreover, many U.S Supreme Court decisions have highlighted the juvenile developmental processes in the majority opinion. According to (Cohen & Casey, 2014) the two major cases that have highlighted juvenile development processes are the Jackson v. Hobbs and the Miller v. Alabama. Miller was convicted of murder and sentenced to imprisonment without parole in a case where he and another teen burned a trailer after an altercation with an adult male who eventually died of smoke inhalation. In the other case, Jackson and three ther teens robbed a video store and in the process, one of the teens pulled his gun and killed the store clerk (pp. 63). The two cases involved male juveniles who were aged 14 years old at the time they committed their crimes. The ther cases where developmental processes of the teens have been highlighted include the Roper v. Simmons of 2005 and the Graham v. Florida of 2010 (Monahan, Steinberg & Piquero, 2015). All these cases made considerable references to the fact that children and youths have less capacity to make rational decisions and should not be punished as adults.

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            The shift from the traditional view of the juvenile justice system to the punitive one has been borne based on the thoughts that such a system would facilitate accountability, deterrence, and incapacitation.  However, research has shown that punitive measures on juvenile offenders is ineffective and does not discourage criminal tendencies among this group of population. According to (Myers, 2016) concerning general deterrence, new body of evidence has shown that the new and modified juvenile justice system transfer laws do not reduce juvenile crimes. The punitive measures adopted has yield n evidence that juveniles who are subjected to such treatment display a reduction in criminal tendencies once they reach their adulthood. Moreover, punishing children and youths may not yield any positive outcomes in future. The author points that children and youths are less oriented compared to adults and thus are less likely to examine the long-term consequences of their present behavior on their future criminal culpability.

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            Similar work on the effectiveness of punitive measures in transfer of children into adult courts has been highlighted in (Kurlychek, 2016). In his meta-analysis, the author found that at its best, the juvenile transfer into adult courts has null effects on the criminogenic tendencies and recidivism. This further alludes to the fact that more punitive measures similar to those of adults may not yield positive outcomes after all. Lehmann, Chiricos & Bales (2016) have also shown the negative impacts of legal and extralegal factors on the juveniles in the trial courts. The authors allude to the possibility of legal and extralegal factors interacting during sentencing with the conviction mode. Although research has shown that trial conviction has a moderating effect on the demographic and case characteristics of the defendant, on the sentence, the authors point that the role of trial in such a moderating has been found to be theoretically ambiguous. This means the trial can strengthen the positive effects of the aggravating factors and the negative effects of the mitigating factors. This has a negative impact with the likelihood of production of disparities in sentencing according to such factors.

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            Moreover, the transfer of juveniles through juvenile court waivers can aggravate the nature of sentencing that such children receive in court and raises concerns regarding the ability of such juveniles in making their testimonies. Although juvenile courts have been disparaged with the kind of treatment that juveniles receive, the transfer of juveniles into the adult courts may not yield the expected treatments on the juveniles. According to (Lehmann, Chiricos & Bales, 2017) the children and youth who are transferred to trial courts are not more likely than the adult offenders to receive prison sentences and were often more likely to receive longer terms in jails when compared t adults aged 60 years or older. Those transferred also received significantly longer prison sentences compared to young adults aged 18 year or older. This reiterates the fact that putting juvenile offenders even under trial in pretext of guaranteeing them their individual rights would subject them to much harsher sentencing treatments.

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            Although the proponents f the punishments f adults highlight the need to adopt more stringent measures to curb the rising crime among the children and the youth, it is evident from the research that the s-called tough measures and trial court judgments indeed never reduce recidivism. Neither do they reduce the tendencies to engage in criminal activities among the children and the youths. It is important that a consensus be established between the two pints of view in order to have more plausible forms of juvenile punishment. It is recommended that a shift in juvenile policy be considered in order to increase rehabilitative efforts among the juvenile offenders. Rather than send juvenile offenders to trial courts, rehabilitation centers, complete with professional counselors be established. This is based on the fact that the criminal choices among the juveniles are a product of developmental factors and that they are more likely to reform than adults (Scott, Grisso, Levick, & Steinberg, 2015).            

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Finally, it is recommended that developmentally-based sentencing framework be adopted in order to ensure that juvenile cases that proceed to trial take into consideration the effect of developmental factors so as to ensure that such children receive punishments that are proportionate to their age and not severe compared to those that adults receive.  According to (Scott, Grisso, Levick, & Steinberg, 2015) the Supreme Court decisions have reiterated that it severe sentences in juvenile criminal trials are not crime specific but applies across all types of offenses committed by the offenders. In line with the Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Florida and in Miller v. Alabama, commensurate sentences should ensure juveniles receive sentences that are not more severe compared to those of adult offenders.

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