“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”

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