About the author: This article was written by Oxana Malanceva, PhD student at Moscow City University, and EAPL-S representative for Russia.
View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.
Remember to also read our fact sheet on young offenders!
At present, there are two opposing views regarding the status of adolescents in the legal system. The “adolescent-as-child” view contends that adolescents are by nature substantially different from adults and, as such, separate legal rights and standards should be applied to address the unique differences of this special population. The alternative view, “adolescents-as-adults”, argue that adolescents are developmentally comparable to adults, therefore similar legal measures should be taken when trying and sentencing adolescent offenders. In response to this, there is evidence for and against the view that adolescents should be tried as adults.
Adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 should be held responsible for their actions, particularly in the case of serious crimes (e.g. murder). This type of argument tends to be endorsed by a lay audience, which is generally unaware of the circumstances unique to adolescent development. Ultimately, proponents of this view contend that adolescents have reached the developmental stage where they have acquired the cognitive abilities necessary to understand the fundamental differences between good and bad.
In the legal process, juvenile offenders can be transferred and tried under the adult criminal justice system. Young offenders can be transferred from juvenile to adult courts through a Judicial Waiver, Direct File, or Statutory Exclusion. A juvenile court judge may decide to transfer the case (called “waiving” jurisdiction), based on a variety of factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the offender’s level of maturity, and likelihood of rehabilitation. Under statutory exclusion, certain categories of juveniles are automatically excluded from juvenile court. These categories are typically determined by some combination of age and offense (e.g., an individual is accused of armed robbery and is 14-years old; Steinberg, 2000).
Opponents of the aforementioned perspective take the stance of adolescents as child, arguing that young offenders should be kept out of adult criminal courts and should be tried strictly within the juvenile system. Many even make the assumption of doli incapax, which presumes that children are not able to form a guilty mind, and therefore, are incapable of crime under legislation or common law (Becroft, 2006). In fact, laws have been formalized to protect adolescents against the various mechanisms put in place to transfer juvenile cases from the young offender courts to the adult criminal justice system. Under such guidelines children are considered a vulnerable group, affording them separate privileges. It has been argued that the age of criminal responsibility should be determined by individual assessments of a child or adolescent’s level of psychological maturation, relative to his or her level of responsibility, impulsivity, decision-making, understanding of consequences, and capacity for rehabilitation (Dozortseva, E.G., 2009). Proponents of this view argue that the mind continues to develop well after the body has physically matured, as evidenced by neuroimaging and developmental research.
Based on a lack of consistency in determining the appropriate age of criminal responsibility, the initial question of, “should adolescents be tried as adults” may be better rephrased as, “should adolescents be held to the same level of responsibility for their actions as adults?”.
Neither perspective on adolescent crime adequately resolves the controversial issue of what age adolescents should be held responsible for their actions. What the literature does agree on, is that the appropriate age of criminal responsibility should be grounded in an empirical understanding of children and adolescent’s maturational processes. In some instances, juvenile offences may be more appropriately treated under the adult criminal system (like in for serious crimes) however, to impose a single cut-off age at which every child or adolescent is to be held to the same developmental standards as adults can lead to potentially unjust and arbitrary decisions regarding criminal responsibility.
“An estimated 200,000 juveniles are tried as adults yearly and receive punitive sentences intended to deter crime and increase public safety.”
– Dr. Karen Miner-Romanoff, criticizing the deterrence model for youth.
"While the justice system assumes adulthood is reached by the age of 18 and given the increase in the number of juveniles being tried within adult court, it is imperative to understand whether young people are as criminally culpable for their actions as adults and where differences may lie in the maturity of young people and their adult counterparts.”
- Claire Bryan-Hancock and BJ Casey, experts on developmental psychobiology.
"Abilities associated with adjudicative competence were assessed among 927 adolescents in juvenile detention facilities and community settings... Youths aged 15 and younger performed more poorly than young adults, with a greater proportion manifesting a level of impairment consistent with that of persons found incompetent to stand trial. Adolescents also tended more often than young adults to make choices that reﬂected compliance with authority, as well as inﬂuences of psychosocial immaturity."
– Thomas Grisso, legal psychiatrist, and his colleagues on juvenile competence to stand trial.
“Even after rigorous statistical matching procedures, juvenile offenders are punished more severely than their young adult counterparts.”
– Dr. Megan Kurlycheck, researcher and expert on juvenile justice and sentencing.
Overview of Controversies covered to date
EAPL-S publications are in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without the permission from the European Association of Psychology and Law Student Society (EAPL-S). EAPL-S encourages you to reproduce them and use them in your efforts to improve awareness of issues in psychology, corrections and law. Citation of the European Association of Psychology and Law as a source is appreciated. However, using these materials inappropriately can raise legal or ethical concerns, so we ask you to use these guidelines: