Posted by Edmond Geary | Posted in Juvenile crimes, Juvenile justice | Posted on 12-03-2011
State by state, fewer juveniles are being tried as adults. In Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the death penalty could not applied to juveniles who younger than 18 at the time of the offense. The Court based this decision on the “general differences” which distinguish them from adults, namely a lack of maturity and greater susceptibility to peer pressure and underdeveloped character. That was in 2005.
Since then, studies have concluded that older adolescents differed significantly from adults in their capacity to make sound decisions and benefitted more from systems that focus on treatment rather than on incarceration. And since those studies, state after state has legislated changes in how juveniles are treated in the legal process in the belief that for youthful offenders, the juvenile justice system is better able to redirect their behavior in part because of the availability of social services.
In January, the Massachusetts legislature introduced a bill to raise the age level of adulthood for purposes of criminal prosecution. North Carolina and Wisconsin are considering the same action. Since last year, Connecticut no longer processes all 16-year-olds as adults. It will do the same for 17-year-olds next year. Illinois has recently transferred some of its low-level offenders younger than 18 into the juvenile system.
Thirty-seven states have set the age of adulthood at 18. The federal government, including the District of Columbia, have the same age. Eleven states use the age of 17 as the age of adult responsibility. That age is 16 for New York and North Carolina.
North Carolina has defeated these changes for two years, mainly because of the cost. The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association has said it makes no sense to take a system that is already lacking in the necessary funding and add two more categories of age groups. The Association has opposed legislation to transfer 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system.
With all the tight budgets around the country, increasing costs for any reason is a hard sell.
One study by the Vera Institute projected the cost of transferring 31,000 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile system at $71 million a year. However, the study also projected $123 million a year savings to society if there were fewer arrests and fewer inmates in jail and prison as a result of lower recidivism.
The juvenile justice system requires greater funding because it costs more to prosecute a defendant in the juvenile system. The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in 2008 to raise the age defining a juvenile from 17 to 18, but the measure died in the finance committee because of the projected cost. A typical juvenile system has a higher staff-to-offender ratio and programs dedicated to treatment and rehabilitation.
There has been a separate system for juveniles for many years, but, in1978, a move began to hold younger teenagers responsible in adult courts. It began in New York after Willie Bosket killed two people in a subway and received only a 5-year sentence, the maximum for a juvenile offender. There was public outrage. The legislature promptly enacted the Juvenile Offender Act, which lowered the age for adult offenders to 13 for murder charges and 14 for other major felonies. It remained at 16 for other crimes. Thereafter over the next two decades, mostly in the 1990s, nearly every state followed suit. The age of adulthood was lowered and the crimes for which juveniles could be prosecuted was increased.
All states retain the option of prosecuting youth for the most violent crimes, regardless of the recent trend. Such cases are a small minority, however. Out of a million juvenile prosecutions nationwide in 2007, only 9,000 cases were sent to adult court.