Trying and Sentencing Juveniles in the Adult Court System

In 2006, Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old girl was tried and sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of murder (Quandt, 2018). Cyntoia was found guilty of killing a man who had hired her as a female escort for sex. In her testimony, Cyntoia explained that “she killed the man in self-defense, that she was forced into prostitution by an abusive boyfriend after escaping an abusive home” (Quandt, 2018). Unfortunately, all her pleads never mattered in the Tennessee court where the juvenile was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment as an adult.

In 2014, another teenager from Denver, Massachusetts, Philip Chism, raped and murdered, Colleen Ritzer, his high school teacher (Lahey, 2016). Under Massachusetts state law, minor offenders aged 14 and above years are subject to the same trial and sentencing adult offenders receive. The court found Chism culpable of committing the two offenses and on December 12, 2015, the juvenile defendant was convicted as an adult when he was only fourteen years old. In June 2016, another fourteen years old boy was arrested after throwing a rock at police during a political rally in New Mexico and charged with two felonies.

The prosecution team stated that the juvenile defendant would face trial as an adult (Scialabba, 2016).

These three astonishing stories highlight an important aspect of the United States criminal justice system – the legal construction of juvenile crime. Trying and sentencing minors in the adult court systems poses severe consequences to the growth and development of juvenile defendants because adolescence has consistently and widely been described as period of vulnerabilities and opportunities due to the peak growth and development experienced during this stage of a human’s lifespan (Dahl, 2004; Crews, He, & Hodge, 2007).

Juveniles are still developing mentally and their actions may not be the same as those of adults. Thus, juveniles should not be tried and sentenced in the adult court system because they are exposed to a dangerous environment and unfair treatment, which often leads to serious ramifications in the future.

The first severe consequence of trying and sentencing juveniles in an adult court is increased exposure to a dangerous and toxic environment. Convicted youth who are sent to a juvenile correctional system have been described as a group considered to be at high-risk (Braverma & Murray, 2011). The Department of Justice conducted the National Inmate Survey with the aim of determining the prevalence of sexual victimization in prisons and jails for the 2011 to 2012 period. The survey covered 233 prisons both at the state and federal level, 358 jails, and 15 special confinement facilities in the U.S. (Beck, Berzofsky, Caspar, & Krebs, 2013). The results of the survey revealed a high prevalence of sexual abuse of juveniles in the correctional facilities. 3,381 out of all the 91,177 inmates who participated in the national survey reported experiencing one or multiple incidents of sexual abuse in the past 12 months or since they were admitted to the prison or jail (Beck et al., 2013). An estimated 29,300 and 34,100 inmates in state and federal prisons were found to have been a victim of sexual abuse by another inmate and a facility staff, respectively (Beck et al., 2013). 5,500 inmates claimed they had been sexually abused by both a fellow prisoner and facility staff. The high rate of sexual victimization was consistent across juveniles and adult inmates. The survey results indicated that about “1.8 percent of 16 and 17- year-olds imprisoned with adults report being sexually abused by other inmates” (Beck et al., 2013). Of the juvenile sexual abuse incidents reported, 75 percent said that they had been molested repeated by staff (Beck et al., 2013).

In addition to sexual molestation, it is imperative to observe that juveniles who are sent to adult prisons and jails are at a higher risk of physical injury and death (Lahey, 2016). The greater risk of sexual abuse, injury, death, and other adversities juveniles encounter when imprisoned alongside adults can be attributed to the imbalance of power between children and their molesters (Lahey, 2016). Particularly, juveniles have less power compared to not only adult inmates, but also officers in the correctional facilities. Furthermore, it is worth noting that these problems are underreported. For example, less than one in 10 of the juveniles who participated in the National Inmate Survey were bold enough or got the opportunity to report abuse incidents (Lahey, 2016). Therefore, it is evident that trying and sentencing young offenders in adult courts and correctional facilities increases the risk of suffering sexual abuse, physical injury, death, and other severe consequences.

Trying and sentencing juveniles in the mainstream judicial system leads to unfair treatment of young people. A 1998 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) investigation into the trial and sentencing of juveniles in adult courts in 40 urban counties within the United States sheds light on the unfair treatment of juveniles in the U.S. criminal justice system. The study discovered that juveniles exhibited higher chances (64%) of being charged with a violent felony than their adult counterparts (BJS, 2018). The study further established that young offenders were generally treated as serious offenders. 52 percent of the juvenile defendants who were surveyed were not accorded pretrial release, while 63% were found guilty of committing a felony with 43% of the convictions were sent to prison (BJS, 2018). The research found out that juveniles exhibited higher chances (64%) of being charged with a violent felony than their adult counterparts (BJS, 2018). Out of the 10,000 Americans serving a life sentence for felonies committed when they were minors, about 2,500 are serving extremely stringent punishment – life without the possibility of parole (Quandt, 2018). Consistent with the findings of the study, it is estimated that the majority of the 200,000 youth who enter the U.S. adult criminal justice system each year involve non-violent offenses (Lahey, 2016).

Subjecting minors to the same trial and sentencing standards and procedures adults are given may amount to unfair treatment. The federal government has passed a number of statutes requiring juveniles to be housed in different correctional facilities from adult inmates. Particularly, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 and the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 require young convicts to be sentenced in separate facilities from adult inmates (Lahey, 2016). In addition to physical separation from adult inmates, these statutes mandate juvenile correctional facilities to provide “educational, psychological, and vocation services” to juveniles (Lahey, 2016). Consistently, Braverman and Murray (2011) observe that juveniles housed in adult prisons have “unmet physical, developmental, and mental health needs.” The researchers further point out that some juveniles have had inconsistent care and present a set of health care needs, including “existing resources and standards for care, financing of health care within correctional facilities, and evidence-based interventions” (Braverman & Murray, 2011).

Lack of access to appropriate health care and mental health support exacerbates the risk of or enhance the severity of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts (Lahey, 2016), addiction (Crews & Hodge, 2007), conduct disorder and psychosis (Vermeiren, Jespers, & Moffitt, 2006), and emotional disorder or substance use problem (Kataoka et al., 2009). Therefore, youth who are sent to adult prisons are denied the chance to benefit from the mandated educational, psychological, and vocation services their peers in juvenile detention facilities or PREA-compliant facilities enjoy. It is important to pay attention to this particular issue because denying minor basic services such as education can have adverse long-term consequences in life. For example, they may find it difficult to find jobs due to the lack of relevant academic requirements.

As noted earlier, housing juveniles alongside adult inmates expose them to a dangerous environment that can worsen the risk of developing or increasing delinquency among the minors. In an attempt to shed light on adolescence development, Dahl (2014) asserts that the nature of adolescence developmental transition requires “an interdisciplinary approach—one that focuses on brain/behavior/social‐context interactions during this important maturational period.” The scholar further identifies that pubertal development is marked with a set of neurobehavioral changes that significantly impact the motivation and emotions of teens. In tandem with the above observations, Crews and He, and Hodge (2007) characterize adolescence by behaviors such as “high levels of risk-taking, exploration, novelty and sensation seeking, social interaction and play behaviors.” Moreover, the scholars associate this period with heightened development of an individual’s talents, reasoning and complex adult behaviors mature. The authors identify that development of the frontal cortex plays an important role in refining a person’s reasoning, setting goals and priorities in life, controlling impulse, and assessing both short-term and long-term rewards. One consequence of this rapid maturation, Crews and He, and Hodge (2007) argue that youth are likely to engage in binge drinking and try out other drugs.

This analysis of adolescence shows how exposing juveniles to a dysfunctional environment inside the adult courts is likely to exacerbate the risk of developing delinquent behaviors such as substance abuse and violence. These factors can increase the risk or recidivism. In their meta-analysis that examined factors that best predict juvenile recidivism, Cottle, Lee, and Heilbrun (2001) identified eight categories of factors predicting recidivism among juveniles. The groups include “demographic information, offense history, family and social factors, educational factors, intellectual and achievement scores, substance use history, clinical factors, and formal risk assessment.” The researchers further established that family problems, poor utilization of leisure time, delinquent peers, “conduct problems, and nonsevere pathology” as strong predictors of recidivism in this population. Most of the factors (e.g. poor utilization of leisure time, delinquent peers, and conduct problems) identified in the study are present in the adult prison environment. Their presence in the adult criminal justice system may help explain recidivism among young offenders. The risk of reoffending is scaled up by limited or lack of access to proper health care and social support – both of which play a critical in successful reentry to the society.

Lastly, trying and sentencing juvenile defendants in the adult court system has and continues to significantly contribute to the perennial overcrowding of the U.S. criminal justice system. The 1998 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study revealed that approximately 7,100 young offenders faced felony charges in adult criminal court in 1998 alone (BJS, 2018). The outcome of the investigation also showed that about two-thirds (66 percent) of the juvenile felony cases ended up in “successful” conviction, either a felony or a misdemeanor. 64 percent of the juvenile defendants who were found guilty were sent to jail or prison as the most serious penalty with the “average prison sentence” standing at 90 months (BJS, 2018). Today, there are an estimated 10,000 Americans serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were minors (Quandt, 2018). Statistics further estimates that minors make up 1,200 of the 1.5 million inmates held in state and federal prisons in the U.S. (Lahey, 2016). About 200,000 minors enter the adult criminal justice system each year, and nearly 10,000 are minors are housed in correctional facilities across the country (Lahey, 2016). The growing population of juvenile population U.S. courts and jails not only overstretch the current prison population but also increase the already unprecedented correctional costs.

The budget for correctional facilities across states in the U.S. has “nearly quadrupled over the past two decades” (Henrichson & Delaney, 2013). In 2011, Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit conducted a national survey to determine the full cost of prisons on US taxpayers in 40 states. The researchers established that the covered prisons cost $38.8 billion of taxpayers’ money (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012). Table 1 above provides a clear breakdown of prison expenditures outside corrections departments. As depicted in Table 1, all the states surveyed reported unprecedented expenditures in their correctional facilities. Therefore, sending minors to the already overstretched adult criminal system may scale up the costs of running current prisons.

In conclusion, the high prevalence of trial and sentencing of juvenile defendants in the adult court system in the United States illuminates a growing need to reconsider the underpinning legal construction of juvenile crime. Adolescence is a period of peak physical, cognitive, psychological, behavioral, and moral growth and development. Their actions may not be the same as those of adults and thus, they should not be tried and sentenced in the adult court system because they are exposed to a dangerous environment inside the prison. This research paper suggests that juvenile should merit unique consideration under the law and their punishment should shift from punitive criminal punishment towards opportunities that foster their development, treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement.

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