“Punishing Kids Like Adult Criminals”

Exploring the criminology and theology connection seeks a better understanding of persons who commit crimes and how a theological perspective may inform our laws and policies to deal with criminals. A theological understanding of “justice” is “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right.” 

Law violators must be held accountable and punished for crimes.  The question is “how much punishment is enough?”  There is no general agreement, but lawmakers believe that punishments must be severe enough to act as a deterrent.  They also believe that repeated criminal behavior is proof that laws are too lenient.  That belief has resulted in millions of offenders incarcerated, in overcrowded prisons, with few rehabilitative programs, at immense cost to taxpayers.  Current sentencing policies have not reduced crime rates.

Previous blog posts (see “Tags” below) noted the number of youth under 18 who are serving sentences with adult criminals.  Separate juvenile laws and courts were established more than a century ago, but many lawmakers view them as too lenient.


Science and Juvenile Laws.  Research in developmental psychology supports separate laws for juveniles based on established adolescent-adult differences:

o lower cognitive development means youth do not process information as well

o adolescents have less developed judgment and emotional and social maturity

o youth are less aware of risks; are more likely to risk harm to themselves and others

o they have a different time perspective; think short-term more than long-term

o they are more prone to peer pressure than adults

o they have less experience in decision-making and make poorer judgments

o neuroscience findings show parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and

decision making are underdeveloped compared to adults.*

The American Bar Association (ABA) supports the reduced culpability of youth based on differences in brain development between adults and juveniles.  The ABA agrees that adolescents are less morally culpable for their actions than competent adults and are more capable of change and rehabilitation.

The idea of not holding violent juveniles accountable the same as adults is difficult for many to accept.  Many believe that committing a serious crime is a sign of maturity.  But according to “brain science” that belief is a misconception.  Violent crimes are not “adult” activities.”  It is illogical to think that a youth who kills is more mature than a youth who steals.

Violent crime triggers a desire for harsh punishment and vengeance.  But under our laws courts must consider the act as well as the level of culpability.  This fact does not excuse adolescents from punishment for violent crimes.  It simply reduces their level of culpability and therefore the extent of their punishment.

Does this mean juvenile laws and courts are less effective in reducing crimeNo.  Research indicates that transferring juveniles who commit serious crimes to adult courts and sentencing them to adult prisons does not reduce serious juvenile crime.  Juveniles who are transferred to criminal courts do not have lower recidivism rates than juveniles who are tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.

This is good news.  Criminology and theology are properly connected here.  A better understanding of adolescent offenders leads to a better understanding of laws that apply to them—laws that are just, fair, and appropriate.  Neighborhoods, cities, and victims of juvenile crime gain through a just system that supports positive change, public safety, and does not make offenders worse.

*[Citations and reference support for facts and findings are available in R. Lawrence & M.Hesse, Juvenile Justice: The Essentials. Sage Publications, 2010, pp. 168-170.]

TagsKids and Adults: Same or Different?                   Adult Time for Adult Crime?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”

Adult Time for “Adult Crime”?

Young adults have some of the freedom and responsibilities of their parents and other adults.  But there are limits on what youth are allowed to do on their own.  In my previous blog post (Kids and Adults: Same, or Different?) we noted the limits placed on youth under the age of 18.  Laws and regulations on purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and negotiating contracts reflect our belief that youth are not prepared for such “adult responsibilities.”

Criminal laws pertaining to young people under 18 who commit crimes are a different matter, however.  Contrary to laws and regulations that treat youth under 18 as less responsible, criminal laws allow for juveniles charged with serious crimes to be transferred and tried as adults and locked up in jails and prisons with adult offenders.

Today we have more than 10,000 juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult jails and prisons (according to the Equal Justice initiative).

Law Professor Cara Drinan documents America’s legal contradictions in her new book The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way (Oxford, 2018).


American juvenile justice has indeed “lost its way.”  Beginning with the first Juvenile Court in 1899 juveniles have been tried, adjudicated, and sentenced to correctional and rehabilitative programs in separate courts and institutions from adult offenders.  That changed in the 1980s and 1990s for juvenile delinquents who did “adult crime”—that is, crimes similar to those adults commit.  The “get-tough” punitive approach to crime control replaced the juvenile court goals of rehabilitation and correction in juvenile training schools.  Lawmakers adopted policies of “adult time for adult crime” to appeal to what they perceived was a more “punitive spirit” in America.

To many lawmakers and the general public this “get-tough” approach makes sense.  They believe that it “sends a signal” to young people and will deter serious juvenile crime. Many believe that holding young offenders accountable when they commit “adult crimes” is just and fair.  They do not see a contradiction between other laws that restrict youth under 18 from the same rights as adults.

Cara Drinan and many other legal experts believe the legal inconsistency in laws pertaining to young people is unfair and unjust.  It’s a “War on Kids.”

Criminologists and corrections experts focus on another question beyond that of prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults and sentencing them to prison with adult criminals.  Does it work?  Does punishing juveniles like adults work better to reduce serious juvenile crime?

We’ll address that question next time.  Stay tuned!

TagsKids and Adults:  Same or Different?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”