Juveniles in the Criminal Justice System

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Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried As Adults? A Developmental Perspective on Changing Legal Policies

Laurence Steinberg

Temple University and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice

Paper presented as a part of a Congressional Research Briefing entitled “Juvenile Crime: Causes and Consequences,” Washington, January 19, 2000. Address correspondence to the author at the Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122, or at lds@vm.temple.edu.

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I'd like to talk today about recent changes in juvenile justice policy that are being implemented despite a full consideration of what research on child development has to say about the wisdom of these changes. The changes that I am referring to are those that are resulting in more and more juvenile offenders being prosecuted and sentenced as if they were adults. I am interested in this both as someone who studies adolescent development and as the Director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. This is a national initiative examining how knowledge about adolescent development can inform policy-making and practice in the justice system. Let me say a few words about the Network and its current activities. Let me frame the issue in historical terms for those of you not familiar with American juvenile justice policy. The existence of a separate justice system within which offenders who have not yet reached the age of majority are adjudicated, sanctioned, and rehabilitated is predicated on the premise that there are significant psychological differences between adolescents and adults, and that these differences are provoked by the normal process of development, age-related, and legally relevant. For the past 100 years in the United States, the acceptance of this premise has guided juvenile justice policy and maintained a jurisdictional boundary between juvenile and criminal court. Historically, the boundary was violated only in extreme cases of dangerousness or recalcitrance, and only then when the age of the offender approached the upper bound of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Most reasonable people agree that a small number of offenders should be kept out of the juvenile system because they pose a genuine threat to the safety of other juveniles, because the severity of their offense merits a relatively more severe punishment, or because their history of repeated offending bodes poorly for their ultimate rehabilitation. But when the wholesale transfer to criminal court of various classes of juvenile offenders that are defined solely by the charged offense starts to become the rule rather than the exception, we need to stop and take stock of what we are doing. I say this because this represents a fundamental challenge to the developmental premise on which the juvenile court was founded: that adolescents and adults are different in ways that warrant their differential treatment under the law. Let me briefly overview for those of you unacquainted with the law what "transfer" means and describe the different mechanisms that are used to shift the adjudication of juvenile offenders to the adult, or criminal, justice system. All states allow juveniles under certain conditions to be tried as if they were adults in criminal court. There are three broad mechanisms that can be used to accomplish this: 1. Judicial Waiver. A juvenile court judge may transfer the case to criminal court (called "waiving" jurisdiction), based on a variety of factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the maturity of the offender, and the likelihood of the offender's rehabilitation. Provisions for this exist in all but five states, although states vary with respect to the lower age limit for this (i.e., the age below which a judge may not transfer the case). In some states, a juvenile court judge must waive jurisdiction for certain offenses if...
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