Dec 5, 2010

the risks of punishing juveniles as adults

If we treat juveniles charged with violent crimes the same way we treat adults, the argument will go, we will--must?--punish them the same way we punish adults.

Why might that be problematic? In his article "The Contradictions of Juvenile Crime and Punishment," found in the Summer 2010 edition of Daedalus, Jeffrey Fagan offers several reasons. First, from a rehabilitative standpoint, it backfires:
... even short-term exposure for youths to adult prisons has risks for youths and for public safety. To the extent that legislators ignored these risks, the wholesale transfer of minors to the criminal courts was a reckless experiment. A robust body of research shows that recidivism rates are in fact higher for youths sentenced as adults, after controlling for relevant offender and offense characteristics....
Why is this the case?
One explanation for the elevated recidivism rates may be the effects of adolescents' exposure to prison life and adult convicts. While likely to be separated physically from older inmates, the institutional climate on the youth side may hardly differ from other blocks in the prison: the separation may be one of degree rather than kind. Indeed, it may even worsen the chaos and violence of correctional confinement by concentrating youths who are at their peak ages of criminality and diminished self-control.
The experience is more psychically damaging to youths, as well:
Only a few studies have compared the correctional experiences of youths in prisons and juvenile incarceration, but all agree that placing youths in prisons comes at a cost: they are less likely to receive education and other essential services, they are more likely to be victims of physical violence, and they manifest a variety of psychological symptoms.
Of course, the affirmative rejoinder is that juveniles who have been charged with violent felonies are potentially beyond rehabilitating in first place--and that the reluctance of society to punish juveniles like adults might give juveniles an inflated sense of invincibility.


Stories of A Dark Place said...

Good reasons... but wouldn't this "exposure" to adult prisons reform juveniles?
THe resolution states Juveniles will be treated as adults in the criminal justice system after committing "violent felonies". These juveniles would have been exposed to this life for awhile.
"...they are less likely to receive education..." What forms of education have these juveniles recieved in the first place? If they are at the point of commiting VIOLENT felonies, what are the chances that they are honor roll students, or that they even attend school?

C said...

The problem with this article's argument is that the resolution refers to violent felons. This means that they likely receive high sentences, meaning they will end up going to jail anyway once they turn 18. So they will be exposed to adult criminals whether we affirm or not.

I also think this is a real limiting factor for this debate. It makes a lot of arguments about juvenile prison vs adult prison invalid because they will end up going to adult prison no matter what we do.

Thats why I think most debates will be won and lost by arguing about the sentencing length (life for adults vs 20 years for juvenile) rather than juve vs adult courts.

Jim Anderson said...

Stories,how would being locked up with drug addicts, rapists, gang leaders, and all other kinds of one-time and career criminals, help reform juveniles? Especially since the data seems to point toward the opposite conclusion?

C, I looked into US Code to see what a "violent felony" means in a legal context. Essentially, it's a force-based (or force-involving) crime that is punished with a sentence longer than one year, ranging from a Class E felony (1-5 year sentence) to a Class A felony (life in prison or the death penalty).

Secondly, if juveniles are treated like juveniles, they will not receive the same "high sentences" like adults; in some cases, their criminal records may even be expunged once they reach the age of majority. So although there is probably an argument to be made that many juvenile offenders will reoffend as adults, juvenile justice advocates will point to empirics that rehabilitation in the JJ system is more effective at reducing recidivism.

Marissa said...

Because this resolution is United States-specific, how do you counter an argument that you can't treat juveniles as adults because they won't be tried against a jury of peers? Would you need to provide an alternate definition of "treat," or could you say that "peers" are something other than peers?

Marissa said...

Oh, that was supposed to say define "peers" as something other than juveniles. Guess that's what happen when you try to do too many things at once.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Is there a min age limit of juvenile? Is a 6 year old considered a juvenile in this resolution? If yes, does aff have to defend to put a 6 year old in adult court? What does "treated as adult" mean? Does it mean go through the same the legal procedure as adult court or the age factor will not be considered in the trial? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I believe in most states there is an age of responsibility that before that age the state may not even charge you with a crime. If a six year old robs a home, the state could only punish the parents. Juveniles are generally considered to be those who are between the age of responsibility and 18 (or what the state defines as a legal adult).

Jim Anderson said...

According to Wikipedia (which is footnoted, so check the sources), "Age determined by each state; the minimum age is 6 (North Carolina), however, only 15 states have set minimum ages, which range from 6 to 12 years. States without statutory minimum ages rely on common law, which means that 7 is the minimum age in most states; for federal crimes the age has been set at 10."

One of the cited sources is Amnesty International's (older) article:

"US laws are inconsistent with the approach of the international community on this issue. Over half of US states have at least one offence for which a child of any age can be prosecuted in the general criminal court. A similar situation prevails with respect to the juvenile justice system. Only 15 states specify a minimum age below which children cannot be charged with being delinquent in a juvenile court. In North Carolina the minimum age is six; in Maryland, Massachusetts and New York it is seven."

It's probably worthwhile to do some digging for the most recent legal information.

And remember, it's always a prosecutor's discretion to bring charges against a younger juvenile--they have to feel that they can convince a jury that the juvenile is not only factually guilty of the criminal act (actus rea, but morally responsible for it (mens rea). That's a natural limitation on pressing adult charges against children.

Anonymous said...

is this article saying if we try juveniles as adults as in before they actually get convicted, even though they still would be convicted as juveniles that they would increase recidivism rates after release from the actual punishment?

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous it's saying that when we take juveniles out of the juvenile courts and try them as adults, they're punished as adults, incarcerated in the same prisons as adults, and that this may be responsible for their increased recidivism rates compared to juveniles tried as juveniles. Does that clarify?