Adult or juvenile court for 17-year-old offenders?

Our legal system has long recognized the fundamental differences between children and adults.  All 50 states and Washington, D.C. offer underage offenders alternatives to adult criminal courts.  However, the state-by-state boundary distinctions between adults and youths are inconsistent for juvenile courts.  At this moment, 37 states and Washington, D.C. place the upper boundary of the court’s jurisdiction at 17 years.  American citizens must therefore ask themselves whether it is appropriate for our justice system to throw in 17-year-olds with hardened criminals.

Due to differences in development of the prefrontal cortex, children respond to rehabilitation efforts far more effectively than adults.  Further, 17-year-olds are typically nonviolent offenders who are unlikely to threaten the safety of communities.  Are we really willing to say that these 17-year-olds, who are often first-time offenders, belong in the same crowd with much older, and sometimes much more violent, career criminals?

Opponents to raising the upper boundary of the court’s age distinction between adult and juvenile offenders have voiced concerns over public safety.  Further, they fear that this might lead to a weakened element of deterrence.  Compared with adult justice, juvenile justice typically places more focus on rehabilitation than punishment.  With this difference in mind, the concern is that the absence of harsh punitive measures would fail to deter crime among 17-year-old offenders.  However, as seen in Texas through a process known as certification, juvenile offenders who commit especially reprehensible acts can still be tried in an adult court.

Moreover, past experience tells us that the juvenile court is more effective in preventing recidivism.  A study of over 2,000 juvenile offenders across New York and New Jersey highlighted the difference in the likelihood of juvenile recidivism based on the court in which they were tried.  Remarkably, youths tried before an adult court were 85 percent more likely to be re-arrested for violent crimes and 44 percent more likely to be re-arrested for felony property crimes in comparison to those tried before a juvenile court.

Juveniles placed in adult correctional facilities also face the threat of victimization.  It is estimated that juveniles held in adult facilities have a 50-percent higher likelihood of being assaulted by an inmate using a weapon.  Juveniles, while constituting less than one percent of jail inmates, represent 21 percent of sexual victimizations.  It is clear that adult correctional facilities pose a greater danger to juveniles than juvenile facilities, which can directly cater to their needs.

Additionally, juveniles in adult correctional facilities are typically denied the opportunity to continue their education.  The impact of separating a teenager from society and denying him access to education is tremendous.  Trying 17-year-olds in juvenile courts, as opposed to adult courts, helps alleviate the denial of access to education.  And by raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, we can more effectively cater to the needs of our youth while keeping communities safe and secure.

Brian Bensimon is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.  Brian is a frequent contributor to The College Fix and serves as the Southwest regional director for Students for Concealed Carry.

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