The juvenile justice system in the United States evolved as growing knowledge about human development, and advances in the fields of psychiatry and psychology made it clear that children and adolescents were not simply smaller versions of adults, but qualitatively different both physically and psychologically. The image of the child, popular during the Victorian era, as a miniature human functioning on the same cognitive and emotional level as an adult, was altered as understanding of human intellectual development increased. The brain develops throughout childhood and into young adulthood, and some functions, such as impulse control, are not fully developed in children and adolescents (New York Times 2001). Recognizing this, the justice system decided to segregate juveniles and adults when assessing behavior and the motivation for criminal acts. It appeared to be more just and correct to consider the criminal behavior of children in light of their immature development, rather than to judge them by the same standards that are applied to the behavior of adults. Another argument in support of separating juvenile and adult judicial processes consisted of the relative flexibility of the young mind. Children are considered to be more responsive to behavioral rehabilitation than adults whose habits and characteristics are more solidified and resistant to change. A consistent nationwide standard of treatment and incarceration in dedicated juvenile facilities, when necessary, would yield the best results for changing the behavior of young offenders, and encouraging them to become productive members of their communities.

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Over the past couple of decades, however, the separation of juvenile and adult judicial processing systems appears to be narrowing. A number of states have lowered the age of eligibility to be tried as an adult, and some states allow juvenile defendants to be transferred to adult court, depending upon the severity of the crime with which they are charged. The disparity among state laws regarding how a defendant qualifies as a juvenile causes confusion and a seemingly uneven application of legal standards. For instance, neighboring states may have a different maximum ages for juvenile status, so that a sixteen year old will be treated differently in New York than he or she is in Pennsylvania (Collier 1998). In order to establish a nationwide standard, it is necessary to analyze the nature of the juvenile justice system, and whether treating juvenile offenders who commit serious crimes differently than adult offenders is justified and is an effective method of protecting both society and the rights of young offenders.

Laurence Steinberg (2001) contends that the concept of a child committing a serious crime is so incongruous to most Americans that the definition of either what constitutes a serious crime or what defines a child must be altered, in order to make it palatable. In the American system, he argues, the juvenile justice system has tended to define all crimes committed by juveniles as delinquencies, maintaining the status of childhood as the predominant factor in how a defendant is processed in the court system. The recent trend toward redefining the age parameters for childhood status threaten to overturn the traditional juvenile justice system in the United States, making young offenders more vulnerable to processing in adult courts and incarceration in adult prisons. Steinberg argues that this trend is harmful to young offenders and to society in a number of ways. He proposes that the age range of twelve to seventeen is the most vulnerable period for most people in terms of the impact of the developmentally transitional characteristics of adolescence. During this period, most people experience numerous changes, both physically, socially, and psychologically. Adolescents tend to be more susceptible to outside influences, and the impact of influences are particularly strong during this period, often having an immutable long term effect on an individual’s life. Due to the unique characteristics of this age range, subjecting young offenders to processing in the adult justice system holds particular hazards, including exposure to different standards of competence, a purely adversarial system, and the exclusively punitive sentencing with no regard for rehabilitation that are standard in the adult court system. Throwing young offenders into an adult criminal justice system could create more dysfunction and higher rates of recidivism than maintaining a rehabilitative system that takes an individual’s developmental stage into account. “’Adult time for adult crime’—the mantra of the get-tough-on-juvenile-crime lobby–says nothing about the age of the offender except for the fact that it ought to be considered irrelevant” (Steinberg 2001).

Arguing against the traditional juvenile justice system, Linda Collier (1998) points out that the types of crimes committed by young offenders have become increasingly violent and serious. She posits that if children are capable of committing adult crimes, then they should suffer adult consequences. The standards of juvenile justice in the United States were formed in the late nineteenth century, when most crimes committed by juveniles were nonviolent, consisting of petty acts such as vandalism, truancy, and petty theft. As juveniles have become increasingly involved in adult crimes, she contends that they forfeit the right to be treated differently than their adult counterparts.

Does protecting society from violent offenders require eliminating the consideration of the unique psychological and social characteristic that affect the behavior and impulse control of the young offender? Eliminating age considerations and transferring all young offenders into the adult justice system will most likely result in higher recidivism and greater psychosocial damage for young inmates. A nationally standardized juvenile justice system that is designed to weigh both the developmental stage of a defendant, as well as the seriousness of the offense, would provide a more just and socially healthy process for young offenders.

  • Collier, Linda J. “Adult Crime, Adult Time.” Washington Post, 29 March 1998, p. C01. New York Times. “Little Adult Criminals.” New York Times. 23 May 23 2001.
  • Steinberg, Laurence. “Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried as Adults?” USA Today Magazine, Jan. 2001, 129(2668) p. 34.