Should Juveniles Be Tried as Adults?

Since the juvenile court was started more than a hundred years ago, a basic assumption underlying the juvenile court has been that juvenile offenders shouldn't go through the adult criminal courts. The juvenile court was created to handle juvenile offenders on the basis of their youth rather than their crimes. The purpose of juvenile court is treatment and guidance rather than punishment. During the 1980s and 1990s, the public called for getting tough with juveniles and trying them as adults. Many states passed laws making it easier to try certain youthful offenders as adults; some states considered the radical proposal of abolishing juvenile courts.

Juvenile courts should be abolished

Supporters of getting rid of juvenile courts center their arguments on the need to punish juvenile criminals and a concern for juveniles' rights.

  1. The juvenile court is founded on false premises because its purpose is to shield youths from the consequences of their own actions.

  2. The juvenile court fails to deter juvenile violence.

  3. The current juvenile crime problem requires that we punish juvenile offenders in order to deter the next generation of juveniles from becoming predators.

  4. Justice demands that juvenile courts be abolished—if juveniles are tried in adult courts, they will be afforded their full array of constitutional rights.

Juvenile courts should not be abolished

Many experts believe abolishing the juvenile court will only make matters worse.

  1. The premise of the juvenile court is sound—since children have not fully matured, they shouldn't be held to the same standards of accountability as adults.

  2. The purpose of the juvenile court is to treat, not to deter.

  3. Changing the social environment in which juveniles live is a more effective way to reduce juvenile violence than punishing juvenile offenders in adult courts.

  4. While the denial of full constitutional rights for juveniles is sometimes a problem, the juvenile court's mission is benevolence—to serve the best interests of children.

Evaluating the case for abolishing juvenile courts

It has been suggested that the entire debate over whether or not to abolish the juvenile court diverts attention away from the most important question confronting the juvenile justice system: How can juvenile delinquency be reduced when neither the present juvenile courts nor adult criminal courts are designed to attack the various environmental factors that are among the causes of juvenile violence?

The initial causes of much juvenile crime are found in the early learning experiences in the family. They involve weak family bonding and ineffective supervision, child abuse and neglect, and inconsistent and harsh discipline. In addition, there are indications that very poor urban communities put youths at greater risk for involvement in violence. Some neighborhoods also provide special opportunities for learning or participating in violence.

The presence of gangs and illegal drug markets provides exposure to violence, negative role models, and possible rewards for youthful involvement in violent criminal activities. Schools also play a part in generating juvenile violence. An important cause of the onset of serious violent behavior is involvement in a delinquent peer group. Alcohol and guns are also implicated in violent behavior by juveniles. In addition, growing up in poverty and unemployment have major effects on the likelihood that a young person will turn to violence during the transition to adulthood.

From a public policy standpoint, several strategies other than incarceration have been proposed for preventing serious juvenile crime:

  1. Make youth access to handguns harder and make guns safer as a way of reducing gun‐related crimes by juveniles.

  2. Improve schools serving juveniles living in poor urban communities.

  3. Provide parents with the skills and resources to show their children unconditional love in safe settings in order to reduce child abuse and neglect.

  4. Create meaningful job opportunities and employment training programs to attack poverty.