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!