Should Juveniles Be Tried as Adults?

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"Old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time."

This popular refrain reduces a complex reality to simplistic rhetoric. It's also wrong. While young people must be held accountable for serious crimes, the juvenile justice system exists for precisely that purpose. Funneling more youth into the adult system does no good and much harm.

Juveniles are not adults, and saying so doesn't make it so. Besides, we don't really mean it: When we try them in criminal court, we don't deem them adults for other purposes, such as voting and drinking. We know they're still minors — they're developmentally less mature and responsible and more impulsive, erratic and vulnerable to negative peer pressure.

As people, they are still active works in progress. We just don't like the logical consequences of that reality — that they are by nature less culpable than lawbreaking adults, even when they do very bad things. So we change the rules of the game.

Which is precisely what we've done. In the last decade, virtually every state has made it much easier to try juveniles as adults. These sweeping changes came amidst widespread alarm that a wave of "juvenile superpredators" was coming — which fortunately turned out to be false. (In fact, juvenile crime was already falling by the time states were tightening the screws.)

In some states, including Tennessee, there is now no minimum age for being transferred to criminal court for certain crimes. It's not abstract: Kids as young as 10 have been charged as adults.

The consequences of this switch-up can be extreme. Most young offenders do not become adult criminals. But when we punish them as adults, we change those odds. Teens tried as adults commit more crimes when released; their educational and employment prospects are markedly worse, creating opportunity and incentive for more crime; they bear a lifelong, potentially debilitating stigma.

The separate juvenile system was developed both to mitigate these harms and...
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