It’s no secret that kids sometimes do stupid things and inevitably get into trouble. Kids test their boundaries, and brain science has shown that impulse control and the ability to predict consequences are often hindered during the developmental teenage years.
In light of what we now know about the brain changes that occur during adolescence and puberty, this information should inform how minors are treated by the criminal justice system. If juvenile offenders lack important faculties like impulse control and consequence prediction, it stands to reason that they are less culpable for the crimes they commit than adults would be.
In many cases, young teenagers are correctly charged as juvenile offenders. The juvenile justice system is largely based on the premise that young offenders can and will reform as they mature. As such, convictions can often be expunged by the time offenders reach adulthood if they complete their sentence and avoid further run-ins with the law.
But there are also a number of offenders charged as adults, some of them as young as 13. In many of these cases, the charges seem to be based on the severity of the crime rather than the defendant’s capacity for culpability.
As an example, a 13-year-old Wisconsin boy was recently charged as an adult for attempted first-degree intentional homicide. The Racine teenager allegedly got into an argument with and then stabbed an 11-year-old girl, claiming she had been “messing” with his girlfriend. The altercation occurred on the girl’s walk home from school and the weapon allegedly used was a pocket knife.
This crime is obviously much more serious than, say, shoplifting, which is the type of offense a 13-year-old might be more likely to commit. But even though the crime is very serious, does this make the 13-year-old alleged offender more culpable?
If we accept the validity of research showing that juveniles lack the mental capacity that adults have to distinguish right and wrong and to curb impulsive behavior, how can we then charge any juvenile as an adult?
Any minor charged and convicted as an adult could potentially carry the stigma of a criminal record with them forever. In this case, the 13-year-old defendant could face up to 60 years in prison if convicted.
Juvenile offenders should not necessarily be let off with a “slap on the wrist.” But shouldn’t we at least allow that reform is possible with age – even for serious offenses like this one?
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Boy, 13, accused of stabbing 11-year-old girl is charged as adult,” Jesse Garza, Sept. 11, 2014