Essay, Research Paper
Should Juveniles Be Transferred To Adult Courts?
Children have been described as our future, our greatest resource, and our hope for a better tomorrow. For many Americans, though, children invoke fear. They represent violence, a segment of society lacking in self-control and devoid of ethics and morals, and the failure of the family to instill traditional values, chief among them being the value of human life and respect for others.
Fear of crime, especially random violence and new wave of “superpredators” by young Americans, is among the nation’s greatest concerns (Lacayo 28). It has served as the motivation for countless numbers of people to change their lifestyles, take self-defense classes, install home security systems, and carry handguns for protection. Moreover, fear of crime has influenced politicians and laypersons to adopt the position that a conservative justice system, which seeks to punish and deter, holds the most promise in curtailing juvenile crime. Waiving juveniles to criminal court and imposing criminal penalties, according to the conservative position, are effective ways for society to express outrage for the transgressions of “out of control” youth and pacify its desire for retribution.
Recent reports issued by the Justice Department have shown an alarming rise in juvenile crime, while the headlines have spotlighted particularly heinous acts performed by very young children. The violence and actions committed by very young children have severely tested the ability of the criminal justice system to establish impartial guidelines for dealing with young criminals. Historically, juveniles have always presented a difficult problem for the courts, which must determine whether there exists an arbitrary age at which a child can be held responsible for their actions and whether age alone should be the determining factor in sentencing.
On June 6, 1996, a 6 year-old boy believed to have been the youngest person ever charged with attempted murder in the United States had the charges reduced to assault with intent to injure in Martinez, California. The boy accused of the brutal beating of a month-old infant during the burglary of a neighbor’s apartment (Curtius A3-A23). The court considered him too young to help in his own defense, and a psychiatric evaluation ruled him unable to understand the consequences of his acts. Charles Patrick Ewing (1990) writes, “the stakes are high when a court decides whether a juvenile murder defendant will be tried as a juvenile or as and adult. Generally a youth tried in juvenile court faces a rather limited punishment if found guilty” (p. 151).
Judge Justine Wise Polier (1989), a veteran of the juvenile justice system in America, observes, “Born of generous impulses, justice for youth was flawed from the outset” (159). Prior to 1899, young criminals were divided into two classes under the law. Children below the age of 7 could not be tried at all, since the law considered them incapable of criminal thoughts or activities. Between the ages of 7 and 14, the law believed that children could differentiate between right and wrong and could therefore be tried for certain criminal behaviors at the discretion of the courts. Children legally became adults at age 14 and could then be treated as adults. Consequently, the laws that are to be voted on presently can break-up the juvenile justice system, which was established in Chicago in 1899 (Lacayo 28).
Until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled on a particularly outrageous case, juvenile courts did not routinely follow due process. Children could be arrested, tried, and convicted without being allowed time or resources to mount a proper defense, confront accusers, examine evidence, or support themselves of the other protections allowed in an adult court. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974 consolidated previous laws concerning juveniles, institutionalizing and formalizing the juvenile justice system. In 1978, the criminal record of one teenager inspired the New York State Legislature to pass the Juvenile Offender Law. Between the ages 9 and 15, Willie Boskett committed more than 2,000 crimes, culminating in an eight-day spree of robbery and the murder of two people. Under existing laws, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty allowed at that time: five years custody by the New York State Division for Youth. The new legislation allowed juveniles as young as 13 to be tried as adult for the commission of certain violent crimes (http://www.ncjrs.org/ojjhome.htm).
The state of Minnesota totally revamped its juvenile justice system, matter of fact it was “it’s biggest…overhaul in 50 years” (Pesce 2A). The law took effect January 1, 1995 and is based on a seven-part crackdown rule. Rather than keep amending laws to just teach youngsters a lesson, Minnesota has adopted these guidelines to punish juveniles as well as being a learning tool. The bottom line is that it will make it a lot easier to prosecute 16 and 17 year-olds in adult courts for the momentous crimes. Also, they will receive both juvenile and adult sentences, and if the juvenile sentence isn’t followed accordingly then the adult sentence will take effect (Pesce 2A).
Numerous examples illustrate the wide range of penalties the courts have initiated across the country in their attempts to deal with violent juvenile crime. When 5 year- old Eric Morse was thrown out of a window in Chicago in 1995 for refusing to steal candy for two older boys, his murderers were convicted of the maximum penalty allowed within the juvenile justice system in Illinois. They were sentenced to juvenile prison until they reached the age of 21, and a maximum of nine years. The 12 year-old is incarcerated in state juvenile penitentiary, making him the youngest inmate in the United States to be sent to a high-security facility (http://www.ncjrs.org/ojjhome.htm). By contrast, 13 year-old Eric Smith, convicted of murdering a 4 year-old in 1995, was tried as an adult. The jury deliberated 10 hours before returning a verdict of guilty on the charge of second-degree murder. Sentenced to nine years to life, Smith will be kept under psychiatric care as a juvenile until he turns 21, at which time he will continue his sentence in an adult prison (http://www.ncjrs.org/ojjhome.htm).
In Florida, the case of 13 year-old Cedric Green, who was charged in the murder of British tourist Gary Colley, spurred U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, a black, liberal democratic, to push for an amendment to the Omnibus Anti-crime Bill seeking adult trials for juveniles as young as 13 years old. Her motive was she heard that Cedric Green was first boasting in school about how the courts can not do anything to him because he was a minor. In pursuing her amendment, Moseley-Braun had this to say on the Senate floor, “At the present time, we are grappling with a situation in which these juveniles leave no record, leave no fingerprints. They can shoot someone with impunity at 14 years of age…and do not have to account for their actions” (Glazer 173). To help substantiate her notion, she also noted that 13-year-olds committed more than 14,000 aggravated assaults in 1992. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, agreed by stating “This is not an easy thing to do, but these are not just kids. These are kids with guns doing violent, brutal, murderous things” (Idelson 3129).
Chairman of the Judiciary Sub-committee Senator Herb Kohl, who along with Moseley-Braun’s amendment sought an amendment to make it a federal offense for juveniles to possess a handgun or any ammunition. However, the exemption for youths that had parental permission for ranching, hunting, target practice, etc., would be the only exceptions to this amendment (Idelson 3129). Since each state has their own laws, the Senate unanimously embraced this law with obviously minimal opposition.
Ewing (1990) writes, “Today every jurisdiction in the United States allows at least some juveniles to be prosecuted as adults and, if convicted, punished as adult criminals” (p. 137). He points out that four factors are usually required: the crime must be serious enough, the juveniles must be at least teenagers, they must be considered dangerous, and they must be considered not amenable to rehabilitation. When these factors are present, in four states, juveniles who are 16 and older are automatically tried as adults; in 10 states this occurs at age 17, and in all others, violent juveniles are automatically tried as adults at age 18. In the summer of 1985, a bill introduced into the Illinois legislature attempted to reduce from 13 to 10, the age at which a juvenile murder suspect could be tried as an adult. The bill passed the Senate but not the House. Nevertheless, it reflected growing public concern over the need to provide suitable punishment for serious crimes, regardless of the age of the offender. The father of a boy stabbed by four youths, who were tried a adults in 1996 and convicted of first-degree murder, expressed his feelings on the verdict, “We don’t celebrate the misfortune of other. But justice is justice” (quoted by Pols, p. A3).
In September 1995 the Justice Department issued a report concluding that, if current trends continue, the number of juvenile arrests for violent crimes will double by the year 2010. Arrest rates for ages 10 to 17 for violent crimes jumped 100% between 1983 and 1992, and the number of teenagers in the population is expected to increase 20% over the next decade. Attorney General Janet Reno noted her shock that the murder rate in 14 to 17 year-olds rose 165% in the last 10 years. Nancy Traver (1992, October 26) observes the dramatic “increase in savage, senseless murders, the kind that occur over a scuffle in a school playground, a pair of sneakers, a romance gone sour” (p. 51).
Ewing (1990) notes, “While it is rarely imposed and even more rarely carried out, the death penalty remains a legal option for punishing juveniles who kill” (p. 155). Five justices of the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that execution of an individual, who was under the age of 16 at the time of the commission of a crime, however violent, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefor limited by the Eighth Amendment. In a ruling the following year, however, the court let the death sentences of a 16 and 17 year-old stand. The following year, 17 year-old Dalton Prejean became the first juvenile to die in the electric chair after this ruling. Convicted for killing a state trooper, Prejean had murdered a taxi driver when he was just 14 and served little more than two years for his crime.
California recently joined a number of other states in passing a law requiring juveniles charged with murder to be tried as adults if they are at least 14 years old. Conceived as a way of dealing with violence by young gang members, one of the first 14 year-olds to be considered as an adult is Danny Connolly, who had no previous record before he shot his mother after a family argument. The Orange County deputy district attorney who was pressing for adult consideration said, “Danny’s quiet past and comfortable upbringing should be no insulation against charges that have been used against street thugs. I feel very strongly about treating people the same” (Olivo A11).
One of the more troubling issues surrounding juvenile justice is the disagreement on the youngest age at which a child can be held accountable, even to some degree. Ewing (1990) observes, “In most states, juveniles under the age of seven are automatically presumed not responsible for their criminal acts, including homicide. Thus, children six years old and younger who kill may not be prosecuted at all, even as juveniles” (p.138). Mary Curtius (1996, June 7) writes, “the criminal justice system generally assumes that anyone under 12 is not capable of understanding the consequences of his acts, and it is rare for anyone under that age to be prosecuted for crimes” (pp. A3, A23). Yet the courts are currently wrestling with the Contra County case; its outcome may set important precedents for criminal charges against very young offenders.
The father of the infant (who suffered severe, permanent brain damage) who was attacked in Contra County said of his son’s assailant, “What that boy needs now is love and lots of attention” (quoted by Curtius, p. A23). His compassion echoes the views of one side in the debate. Studies have shown that up to 70% of the children in juvenile court are from single-parent homes, with a disproportionately high number of minority offenders represented in the system. Polier (1989) argues, “Greater justice for youth cannot be separated from America’s policies that affect all youths in this country”(p.163).
Edward Humes (1196, May 29) agrees: “Our national fixation with meeting out adult punishments to young criminals has blinded us to the underlying crisis – the juvenile justice system’s shocking inability to impose meaningful penalties on offenders before they become the ‘predators’ we so fear”(p. A23). Humes contends that the question should not be whether or not to deal with more juvenile offenders as adults but instead how to reduce the number of juvenile offenders in the first place, through social programs that reach youngsters before they become hardened, experienced criminals.
Now that new laws and amendments in trying juveniles as adults are in effect, the final resort of deterrence to these heinous juvenile acts is whether the death penalty should be enforced. In 1989, Frank W. Heft Jr., who opposes the death penalty for minors, and David Smith, who is for the death penalty, argued two cases in which teens had been sentenced to death. Heft states that “the imposition of the death penalty does not advance the deterrence and retribution rationales of capital punishment” and “Adolescents respond to stressful situations by acting impulsively and without the mature judgement expected of adults. These characteristics are shared by all adolescents…thus, the possibility of capital punishment is meaningless to juveniles and has no deterrent effect” (Heft & Smith 42). Subsequently, in 1993, Senator Paul Simon was unsuccessful to motion an amendment that would outlaw capital punishment for juveniles under eighteen years old. Again Senator Orrin Hatch led the voting to kill the Simon Amendment (Idelson 3129). Heft Jr. is merely saying that since the juvenile doesn’t fully understand their actions nor the repercussions that follow, thus capital punishment will not deter violent juvenile offenses. On the other hand, David Smith contests that “it is unrealistic to assume that all persons belonging to this age group share the same degree of immaturity. Common human experience indicates that maturity varies from individual to individual” (Heft & Smith 43). It is quite apparent that by this assumption Smith is saying that such cases should be tried on a case to case basis. Also, the judgement should be based by factoring the sophistication and maturity level of each individual along with the severity of the crime.
In conclusion, it is quite obvious that the continuous rise of violent juvenile crime is increasing each year. The criminal sanctioning of juvenile offenders is not a contemporary phenomenon. Juveniles have been punished as adults for centuries. Age and offense seriousness traditionally has been the criteria by which juveniles are waived to criminal courts. However, from a legislative standpoint, the predicament is being able to make amendments and new laws, and at the same time, maintain the integrity of the Juvenile Justice System or be gone with it. If society continues to lobby for the ‘get tough’ approach, then Senator Orrin Hatch sums it up by stating “People are expecting us to do something about these violent teenagers. We’ve got to move on” (Lacayo 28).
Lacayo, Richard. “Teen Crime.” Time 21 July 1997: 26-29.
Olivo, A., & Ellingwood, K. “A Family Torn from Within.” Los Angeles Times
29 May 1996: A1, A11.
Pesce, C. “Minn. Puts ‘Hammer’ on Juvenile Criminals.” USA Today
30 December 1994: 2A.
Polier, J.W. Juvenile Justice in Double Jeopardy: The Distanced Community and Vengeful
Retribution. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1989.
Pols, M.F. “Four Youths Convicted of Murdering Boy, 16.” Los Angeles Times
29 May 1996: A3.
Traver, N. “Children Without Pity.” Time 26 October 1992: 46-51.
http://www.ncjrs.org/ojjhome.htm (National Center of Justice & Delinquency Prevention)