Charging Juvenile Offenders as Adults

Posted by Laurie Spivey

Aug 16, 2016 12:30:00 PM

What price do we pay by charging youths as adults?

Sometimes young people do terrible things. Things that have lasting consequences. Things that require a swift response. Like two Wisconsin girls who were 12 when they were arrested on suspicion of stabbing a classmate 19 times. Though a decision about charging these young people as adults has yet to be made, in the state of Wisconsin, a child as young as 10 can be tried as an adult. Acts like these are terrible and heartbreaking and it leaves lawmakers, court personnel, and the general public feeling like they have to take action. Is charging juvenile offenders as adults really the best answer?

The costs of charging juvenile offenders as adults

The Equal Justice Initiative reports that some 4,500 children are housed in adult jails on any given day in America. These children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities and face an increased risk of suicide.

Additionally, juveniles who witness violence during incarceration, which is more likely in adult facilities, are less likely to be deterred from future crimes. And what about the long-term consequences? The news doesn’t get any better.

Juveniles whose cases were seen in criminal court were more likely to re-offend and to re-offend sooner than matched samples of juveniles whose cases were seen in juvenile court. For example, young people tried and convicted as adults were found to be 34 times more likely to commit another crime than an adolescent tried for similar offenses in the juvenile justice system.

The Rationale

So, why do we do it? Why do we charge kids as adults if we have evidence that it doesn’t protect society, that on the contrary, it has serious negative consequences? I have a few good guesses. I think we do it because not enough of us understand the perils. Judges run on the platform that they will be “tough on crime,” and popular opinion often dictates, in some states more than others, that the way to “get tough” is to fill up our jails. I also think it happens sometimes because we lack resources or because we don’t have an understanding of why the things we have tried haven’t helped these youth. Lastly, I think we go for it because we don’t spend enough time talking about the alternatives to charging youth as adults.

The Alternatives

Evidence-based treatments (EBTs) for young offenders give us options. Most provide great long-term cost savings. In my years working with Multisystemic Therapy (MST), I have seen how effective it is, and there are many randomized and independent trials that back this up. Still, MST is not the only EBT. To find others, check out Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, an organization that operates independently of any treatment model, and provides a registry and ranking of evidence-based youth programs. Only MST and Life Skills Training (LST) received its top Model Plus rating.

Some states have seen the light

Adolescent brains are not fully developed. Young people think differently than grown-ups, react differently, and often don’t consider the consequences of their actions. Throwing them into the debilitating, demoralizing, and devastating cauldron of adult prisons is arguably criminal. 

Some states have recognized that. In 2020, Vermont raised the age to 18, rendering it the state with the highest juvenile jurisdiction age cutoff in the country. Additionally, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have all raised the age that a young person is tried in adult court to 18. There are “raise the age” campaigns in multiple states including Georgia, Texas, New York, and Wisconsin.

Moreover, with advancements in data collection and technology, many areas are adopting evidence-based approaches to screening instruments in the juvenile justice system. As of 2017, 42 states support risk assessment through either state statute or probation agency policy.

We can no longer stand for solutions that don’t work and put our young people and communities at greater risk. Let’s raise awareness about the evidence-based alternatives to charging young people as adults. Their lives will benefit. Our society will be better and safer. It’s the right thing to do.

Laurie Spivey is an MST Expert at MST Services.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform