Juveniles and the Adult Criminal Justice System

Every day in the news, we see case after case of children and teens accused of committing very adult crimes, including assaults, rapes and even murders. In many cases, adolescents and teens simply do not possess a full understanding of the law and the ramifications of their behavior.

  • In St. Louis recently, a 14-year-old boy was critically wounded by police gunfire after reportedly opening fire on officers as he ran away.
  • In Maryland, police restrained and pepper-sprayed a teen girl who allegedly would not cooperate after a traffic accident. The girl tried to ride her bike away from the scene, saying she didn’t want her parents called. Charges against her included assault and possessing marijuana.
  • In Columbus, Ohio, a police officer shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after he displayed what looked like a handgun. The boy had only an air pistol that shoots BBs.
  • In Washington, D.C., a transit officer pushed and kicked a teen girl after she reportedly refused to show her school ID or tell her age. Her alleged crime? Failing to put away a lollipop and bag of chips when ordered to do so before boarding the train.
  • In Los Angeles, an 18-year-old young man allegedly armed with a loaded handgun was fatally shot by police.

Children and teens accused of committing crimes raise serious questions for the U.S. criminal justice system. Do individuals who are so young have adequate knowledge of the law and the potential consequences of their actions? Do they understand their rights? And how does the justice system take into account the age of an offender when meting out punishment?

Miranda Rights and Juveniles

Children and teens who are questioned by police often don’t understand the potential ramifications of talking. They are confronted by an authority figure and, in too many cases, they simply do what they’re told without any knowledge of the right to remain silent or how their hasty words can come back to haunt them.

A recent Wisconsin murder case centers on such a misunderstanding by a young person. A 15-year-old boy, accused of fatally stabbing another teen, was questioned multiple times over two days with no juvenile defense attorney or parent present. After the fact, the boy said he’d made up his confession based on a book.

In another Wisconsin case, the so-called “Slender Man” stabbing, two pre-teen girls allegedly lured another girl into the woods and stabbed her multiple times to placate a fictional character known as Slender Man. Despite their fervent desire to please a fictional character, the two girls — both 12 at the time of the attack — were charged as adults with first-degree attempted homicide and were found competent to stand trial.

The suspects in the Slender Man case were read their Miranda rights, and they then spoke to police for long periods without their parents or a lawyer present. These cases beg the question: Do children truly have the ability to understand complex legal concepts?

Consideration of Age in Sentencing

In a process known as “waiver,” judges can bypass the juvenile system and transfer serious juvenile cases to adult courts. And cases tried in adult courts often end with juveniles serving time alongside adults. Does the system take age into account when handing down sentencing?

In some cases, yes, but judges have a significant degree of discretion in both the length of the sentence and where it’s served.

Once a juvenile case is moved to adult court, young people are at risk for more severe punishments, which can include life sentences. In addition, judges who preside over adult courts have fewer options for alternative punishments and treatments that juvenile court judges can use.

And for young people who are convicted — and serve time — through the adult criminal justice system, the social stigma can be severe and long-lasting.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sentences of life without parole may be issued only to juveniles who are beyond hope of being rehabilitated. Clearly, children are not simply smaller adults, as the court also has concluded.

Do children and teens have the ability to understand the consequences of their actions? Before society gives up on one more child — locking them away and throwing out the key — we should think long and hard about the answer.

Written by Anthony DeLuca
Anthony DeLuca is a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney with nearly 20 years of legal experience. In recent years Mr. DeLuca has focused his practice on helping those with mental illnesses who have been charged with crimes.


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