Why Young People Should Not Be Tried As Adults in America

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By: Abena, Youth Member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. 

Sean McGarvey, the author of “Mental Health: Innovation in the Laboratory of Human Behavior,” states, "This system ignores the unique circumstances and rehabilitative capabilities of young individuals within the justice system." I have never read a more accurate quote. 

The purpose of the juvenile justice system in the United States was to divert young people from the devastating punishments of criminal courts and to encourage rehabilitation based on the requirements of each individual adolescent. However, considering the current state of this system, I’d have to disagree. The disciplinary technique used by the juvenile justice system, as well as the inadequate conditions typically seen in detention centers, has been shown to have a negative effect on youth in the justice system. Their current situation is a tug-of-war between the potential of adolescents to rehabilitate and redeem themselves versus heavy sentencing in jails, which has a slew of unintended repercussions. The juvenile justice system needs to be reformed in order to provide more effective treatment and reduce mental health issues within youth who come into contact with the justice system, and fairly respond to adolescent behaviors. 

The brain's structure and function undergo considerable changes during adolescence. Adolescents are more vulnerable to irrational decision-making caused by impulsivity and reward or sensation-seeking behavior due to their psychosocial immaturity. Children's brain regions connected to impulse control and emotional maturity are still developing, according to research. The lack of brain development makes children more susceptible to committing crimes. Impulsivity causes adolescent convicts to make irrational decisions which leads them to commit crimes. Reward sensitivity and sensation-seeking motivate youth to engage in risky acts causing them to engage in illegal activity. Considering this information, why would we punish children for being children? While this is no excuse for committing crimes, this information needs to be considered when we harshly sentence young people to extremely long sentences in prison. Rehabilitation needs to be prioritized over retribution. This research clearly demonstrates that adolescent development makes all youth vulnerable to behaviors that may bring harm upon themselves or others, but this vulnerability is amplified when mental health problems are present.

Childhood abuse and psychiatric problems are significant among incarcerated youth. The overwhelming number of imprisoned adolescents were abused or neglected as children, and are dealing with psychological disorders whilst serving time. Even while the counterargument that many factors, not only childhood trauma, play a role in mental health is correct, studies have found a substantial link connecting severe maltreatment and increased aggressive and defiant tendencies. Youth in the justice system have frequently encountered higher degrees of trauma than the average youth population. Studies have shown the rate of traumatic victimization among youth in the justice system to be as high as 75%. So, instead of imprisoning children for acting out as a result of their home lives, we need to take more initiative to ensure that at-risk youth do not fall prey to the hands of our dysfunctional justice system. 

While some may argue that many people with mental health issues do not go on to commit crimes, these statistics are especially concerning when compared to the general youth population, where only 14 percent to 20% of youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder, whereas reliable data suggests that approximately 66 percent of youth in the justice system have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.  Although all adolescents experience a period of brain development that makes them more susceptible to crime, young people are put more at risk due to their childhood trauma and mental health issues. This period of brain development, which includes illogical judgment induced by impulsivity and reward or sensation-seeking behavior, as well as trauma, neglect, and other environmental issues, makes certain young people vulnerable to terrible failures in judgment. As of now, our justice system is simply punishing youth that come from a troubled background. The goal should be to create healthier environments so that youth can make healthier decisions. 

Despite the fact that all of this information has tremendously enhanced our comprehension of the adolescent mind and its development, uncertainty concerning whether or not adolescents should be tried as adults continues to linger. In the United States, legislators have enacted regulations that make it easier for young people to be prosecuted as adults. If the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate children to ensure that they thrive during adulthood, it's crucial to assess how well this objective is fulfilled when a teenager is charged and convicted as an adult. The nature of the crime, the youth’s criminal history, and whether the adolescent is amenable to treatment are the factors used to determine whether or not a teen should be prosecuted in the adult system, all of which ignore the child’s level of maturity. Despite the fact that minors do not think or respond like adults, significant offenses are frequently prosecuted in adult courts, with adult-like penalties. The courts focus on sentencing for adults who are convicted of any crime. In essence, they seek to apply a punishment that makes it less likely that the defendant would commit a similar offense in the future. Since childrens' minds are still developing, they will continue to act carelessly without considering the consequences, meaning a strong retributive penalty will not discourage future crimes. We need to take this into consideration when choosing to sentencing minors for life.  

All my research combined delivers a clear message: reforming the way the adult system, and consequently, the justice system punishes adolescents is critical. Trying a minor as an adult in the court of law contradicts neuroscientific research and defeats the purpose of a juvenile justice system by not prioritizing rehabilitation over retribution. Despite evidence suggesting that the juvenile justice system's rehabilitation efforts are more effective for adolescents than the adult justice system's retribution, nearly 300,000 children are serving sentences in adult prisons, and nearly 250,000 children are transferred to adult courts each year, where they face lengthy prison sentences. If America truly defines itself as a nation of second chances, action must be taken now to fix the juvenile justice system.

The views expressed are those of the author.