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Juveniles Sentenced as Adults – Is It Fair?

In the United States, the justice system has a non-standard approach to juvenile justice. According to the current legislation, children from 11 to 13 years old and adolescents up to 18 years old are brought to trial on a general basis, and after reaching the age of 18, are automatically transferred to adult prisons. Contrary to expectations, the recidivism rate among young people is increasing after being transferred to adult prisons. Another problem is the lack of special programs to protect the interests of juveniles, including due to their vulnerability to adult criminals in prisons. Courts often fail to recognize that children cannot fully assess the consequences of their actions and make deliberate decisions. This paper aims to discuss the opposing viewpoints regarding whether it is reasonable to sentence juveniles as adults.

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The juvenile justice system and the juvenile rehabilitation system need changes. Graber (2019) notes that the current practice is “unconstitutional and immoral” as it violates the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, according to which all US citizens have the right to due process and cannot be deprived of their life, liberty, or happiness (p. 3). The author implies that justice should be carried out to improve the situation for the better and protect all parties, not to punish offenders. It is a critical aspect in understanding why the trial and imprisonment of minors on a general basis is unfair.

Young people between the ages of 11 and 18 who are subjects of juvenile justice are physiologically and mentally different from adults. Graber (2019) emphasizes that “the brain does not have a fully developed frontal lobe until about age 21, which results in adolescents being unable to make decisions and analyze situations like adults” (p. 3). The scientist notes that adolescents make decisions more impulsively and are less inclined to analyze their actions than adults. It is imperative that judges and prosecutors consider this fact when deciding on a case and conducting interrogations. Rehabilitation of adolescents should also regard their differences and special needs.

Interrogation of minors deserves particular attention, as offenders may not understand their rights during trial and interrogation. Redlich et al. (2020) state that “under interrogation, while explicit statements of leniency are unacceptable, implicit statements are permitted” (p. 555). Scientists point to a situation where law enforcement officials interrogate defendants using not entirely legal interrogation techniques, such as condescension or putting subtext in the spoken words. Minors cannot fully assess prosecutors’ intentions and discern implications, so this practice should be categorically excluded concerning juveniles.

Given the differences between adolescents and adults, most scholars are unanimous that juveniles should not be sentenced as adults and propose programs to help achieve justice. Lane (2018) states that effective responses will help reduce adolescent crime rates dramatically. The scientist suggests making sure that adolescents receive help and support, professional protection, and are treated without prejudice. Lane (2018) recommends tackling community-level problems, developing personalized approaches, building better data systems, and investing in children and adolescents serving their sentences.

Often, stereotypes influence how juveniles are perceived in court and during sentencing. Greene et al. (2017) concluded that there is a bias against children and adolescents who have committed serious crimes due to which they are perceived as superpredators. The scholars note that “we described a 13, 17, or 21-year-old offender who killed a stranger or abusive parent and asked if he should be taken to a criminal court and sentenced to LWOP; as support for the superpredator stereotype grew, so did support for these practices” (p. 841). These results indicate strong prejudice against juvenile offenders, especially when they commit serious crimes.

The most common arguments in defense of the current situation may include the need to create an example that injustice is always punished, especially when it comes to murder. On the one hand, advocates of the practice may argue that it typically affects adolescents aged 16-17, who make up most juvenile offenders. Appropriate punishment for adolescents can positively impact a sense of justice for victims. On the other hand, these arguments do not consider the physiological and mental age differences and the unique needs of children during imprisonment. Moreover, the transfer of children to adult prisons aggravates the crime situation, which indicates the inexpediency of such practice.

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Thus, different viewpoints regarding whether it is reasonable to sentence juveniles as adults were discussed. This practice allows implementing justice in the case of serious crimes committed by adolescents and demonstrating to society that such actions as murder are fully punishable by law, regardless of the offender’s age. However, this approach is not entirely reasonable and practical since it does not regard the mental and moral development of children and adolescents. The practice of court and interrogation does not consider that juveniles cannot fully understand the essence of the process and their rights. Therefore, the existing stereotypes and increased severity concerning crimes committed by children exacerbate the situation.

References

Graber, R. L. (2019). Is it acceptable for juveniles to be tried as adults? Criminal Justice Capstone Research Papers, 1, 1-26.

Greene, E., Duke, L., & Woody, W. D. (2017). Stereotypes influence beliefs about the transfer and sentencing of juvenile offenders. Psychology, Crime & Law, 23(9), 841-858.

Lane, J. (2018). Addressing juvenile crime: what have we learned, and how should we proceed? Criminology & Public Policy, 17(2), 283-307.

Redlich, A. D., Shteynberg, R. V., & Nirider, L. H. (2020). Pragmatic implication in the interrogation room: A comparison of juveniles and adults. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 16(4), 555-564.

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