The Trouble With Trying Children as Adults

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John Last 1There are numerous issues surrounding trying juveniles as adults – particularly in cases where the possibility of life without parole exists. The ideas that shaped juvenile justice for over a hundred years have been degraded and attacked, particularly in state government, with a view that juveniles deserve harsher punishment. These ideas fit the overarching “tough on crime” view of many politicians (and often their constituents). But does this view reflect reality, or is it a political convenience that preys on the pain of victims and the fear of the public?

Some argue that juveniles are responsible for their actions, that they are in essence miniature adults who deserve what they get. They would have us believe that juveniles are in fact beyond redemption, and that they can predict which children will not change. Others argue the opposite. These issues are hotly debated in the United States, where the situation is complicated by state jurisdiction over laws, but the problem is not unique to our country. Internationally the United States is an exception to the norm. As of 2009 more than 190 countries ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which opposes life without parole for juveniles. The exceptions were the U.S. and Somalia. This is not to suggest that international law supersedes U.S. law, but that we might reexamine our own policies in light of world opinion.

One instance where juvenile violence and restoration arise is in conflicts that involve children as combatants. Child soldiers are employed across the globe, and often they are involved in atrocities. Some of these children were abducted, some volunteered, and some had no other options. Many committed war crimes under duress or threats against their lives, but some of them committed terrible acts of their own volition. One of the most difficult issues of these conflicts is how to treat these children when captured or at the end of hostilities. How can these kids be reintegrated into civil society, especially after learning to perpetrate violence as a way of life? How can they be held accountable for their actions while still acknowledging their lessened culpability? The situations are not exactly the same, but there are enough similarities that a comparison might benefit us.

Many of the questions that arise can be applied to both examples. How do we respect the rights of the victims? How do we evaluate the offender? How do we balance retribution, restoration, and safety? In most of the world, even in places where child soldiers are common, there is an acknowledgement that youth is a mitigating factor, that kids can change, and that they can be brought back into the community. Perhaps these views can be adopted here, along with some means of keeping the public safe as well.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles couldn’t be executed. In 2010 the court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. I hope that this represents a trend toward reinstating the ideas that formed juvenile justice, that kids by their nature are less culpable and more malleable than adults, and consequently should be treated in a different way. Acknowledging this does not eliminate or deny the need for protecting society or seeing justice done.

I believe that a way to balance these considerations can be found. The possibility of parole is not the same as a guarantee of parole. If an individual is deemed to be dangerous, or not to have served enough time (whatever that might be), then he remains imprisoned. Sometimes he remains imprisoned until death. By the same measure, if he is deemed to be rehabilitated, to have learned from his experience how to exist in society, then society has the option to extend mercy. It seems unlikely to me that we could reasonably determine what course an individual’s life might take. To impose a sentence that allows for parole, but does not guarantee it seems a good balance to me. I do not believe that it is an either/or proposition. The needs of all parties can be considered and valued. Justice and mercy are not incompatible.

2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Trying Children as Adults

  1. My son was adjudicated at the age of 15 for the murder of a 16-year-old when he was 14 to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. I am aligned with these expressed concerns and with the work toward creating a culture of restorative justice for both victims and offenders.

    I also create and lead seminars in prisons and jails delivering experiential education that includes powerful training in developing communication skills. These programs have been delivered in Georgia facilities. I see the opportunity for collaboration and cooperation in this effort.

    I am open to being contacted directly.