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Juvenile Law

Trying Juveniles As Adults

In 1899 the U.S. made legal history when the world's first juvenile court opened in Chicago. The court was founded on two basic principles. First, juveniles lacked the maturity to take responsibility for their actions the way adults could. Second, because their character was not yet fully developed, they could be rehabilitated more successfully than adult criminals. More than a century later, these principles remain the benchmarks of juvenile justice in the United States.

In recent years, however, a growing number of juvenile criminals are being tried as adults—much the way they might have been before the advent of juvenile courts. In part this stems from public outrage against children who, in increasing numbers, are committing violent crimes. Interestingly, the overall rate of juvenile crime has been decreasing since 1995. When people see gruesome images on television, such as the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, or the Springfield, Oregon, rampage of 15-year-old Kip Kinkel (who shot both his parents and two classmates), their impression is that juvenile crime is out of control.

Since the early 1990s many states have adopted a "get tough" approach to juvenile justice as a response to the increasingly violent crimes committed by children. As of 2003 many states had adopted legislation that permits more children to be tried as adults. All states have a provision allowing prosecutors to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults under certain circumstances. In some states, such as Indiana, South Dakota, and Vermont, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults.

An example of a "get tough" law is Michigan's Juvenile Waiver Law of 1997. This measure lowered the age that juveniles can automatically be tried as adults. In adopting this law, the state has taken away some of the judge's discretion in deciding whether a minor should be tried as a child or as an adult. Factors such as criminal history, psychiatric evaluation, and the nature of the offender's actions carry less weight when the judge is forced to enter an automatic adult plea.

Another example is California's Proposition 21, which was passed in 2000. This law permits prosecutors to send many juveniles accused of felonies directly to adult court. In effect, the prosecutors are the ones who decide whether a minor should be tried and sentenced within the adult system; this takes away the judge's discretion. Proposition 21 also prohibits the use of what was known as "informal probation" in felonies. This type of PROBATION was offered to first-time juvenile offenders who admitted their guilt and attempted to make restitution. Finally, the proposition requires known gang members to register with police agencies and increases the penalties for crimes such as VANDALISM.

The U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT shows that prosecutors are actively putting these new tougher laws to use against juvenile offenders. A Justice Department study released in 2000 states that violent juvenile offenders are more likely to serve out their sentences in an adult prison than they would have been in 1985. With two million adults currently incarcerated in prison, the number of juveniles in adult facilities is a minuscule percentage; 7,400 juvenile offenders were serving time in an adult facility as of 1997, according to the Justice Department. That number, however, is more than double the number of juveniles in adult prisons in 1985.

The question of whether trying juveniles as adults is effective has generated considerable interest. Some studies have suggested that instead of solving a problem, trying juveniles in adult settings may be making things worse. Juveniles who serve time with adults have a higher RECIDIVISM rate than those who serve with other juveniles. Moreover, juvenile recidivists from adult facilities were more likely to commit more violent crimes than their counterparts in juvenile centers. Groups such as HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH have complained that prison conditions for juveniles in adult prisons are poor and that juveniles in adult facilities are more likely to be assaulted or abused by other prisoners.

Putting aside the debate over whether minors belong in adult prisons, there is no question that the practice had gained support and was in the early 2000s accepted by people who might have balked 20 years earlier. Whether the new "get tough" policy so many states embrace would work remained to be seen, but it was certainly expected to stay.


Anderson, David C. 1998. "When Should Kids Go to Jail?" The American Prospect (May-June).

Juszkiewics, Jolanta, and Marc Schindler. 2001. "Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?" Corrections Today 63 (February).


Courts; Penitentiary.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La FolletteJuvenile Law - History, Trying Juveniles As Adults, Modern Juvenile Law, Should The Juvenile Justice System Be Abolished?