America corrects a mistake: trying minors as adults

After nearly every state made it easier to try minors as adults in the 1980s and '90s, several states are taking steps to send them to juvenile court. That's a more productive and less costly approach.

When society pulls back from overreach, that’s worth a note of praise. So it is with the way that some states treat juvenile offenders.

While tough-on-crime laws from the 1980s and ’90s automatically sent many 16- and 17-year-old defendants to adult courts for trial, that trend has been halted and is now being reversed.

Several states are recognizing what parents already know – and what the Supreme Court has ruled: Youths are not adults, mentally and emotionally, and so they should not be prosecuted as adults.

In the past four years, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, and Mississippi have passed laws that now refer certain 16- and 17-year-old defendants to juvenile courts, instead of automatically sending them to adult courts (the offenses covered vary from state to state). This year, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and North Carolina may also reverse course.

What’s pushing these states is the realization that minors don’t think like adults, and that treating them as such is counterproductive.

Two rulings by the Supreme Court support these conclusions. In 2005 the Court overturned the death penalty for youths under 18. Last year, it banned life-without-parole for those under 18 who are convicted of crimes short of murder. In both cases, the justices recognized “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote last year.

Studies show that youths are less able to control their impulses, to consider consequences, and assess risk than adults. Research also shows the negative fallout – for society and for offenders – of putting minors through the adult legal system.

Youths in adult facilities, for instance, can experience more physical abuse and suicide than those in the juvenile system. Higher percentages of minors tried as adults also commit repeat offenses – and more violent ones – than for comparable youths who go through juvenile courts. That’s because the juvenile system offers more support and rehabilitation services. And juvenile court records are sealed, giving an ex-offender a better chance to get a job once outside the system.

In all, 13 states still try under-18 youths as adults – though that number will drop once new laws fully take effect. Those who oppose raising the age of minors in relation to crime argue that states with tight budgets can’t afford to take new waves of youths into their juvenile programs and facilities.

But that’s a false economy. In the long run, states save money through lower recidivism. States should use their tight budgets to look at the value that taxpayers receive for their criminal justice dollars. If they do, they will find that treating juveniles as juveniles – rather than as little adults – will be better for communities, offenders, and state treasuries.

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