Trying children as adults in criminal court, like anything, has supporters and opponents. Legislation in a number of states has made it easier to try adolescent offenders as adults recently. Supporters believe that punishment should be proportionate to crime, so when a young offender commits a heinous crime, they should be punished more severely. Supporters also believe that it will decrease crime committed by young people, but studies have shown that harsher punishment, for adults and children alike, does little to deter crime in general.
The juvenile court system was created because of the belief that children and adolescents can be more easily rehabilitated than adults. It was not always so, though. In the 1700s, there was absolutely no distinction based on age. As time went on, psychologists and sociologists realized that there are a number of developmental periods that people pass through during their life. The Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency founded the New York House of Refuge in 1825. It became the first facility intended to house young offenders. More cities followed suit, and reformers believed that delinquency was the result of low moral education and standards in society, so many institutions began including education in their rehabilitation programs.
The first juvenile court system was created in 1899 as a result of all of these juvenile delinquent rehabilitation centers. It was established in Cook County, Illinois. The legal proceedings there were subjected to strict confidentiality to prevent minors from being stigmatized when it was believed they could be rehabilitated. The court handled criminal cases and also trivial cases like truancy. There was no due process and the judge was given a paternal role when presiding over cases. By 1925, 48 states had created separate juvenile court systems.
During the 1960s, more reformers arose and believed that children in the juvenile system were not actually being rehabilitated. They also believed the children should be afforded due process. The 60s and 70s saw a number of rulings by the Supreme Court regarding the treatment of young offenders. They were eventually given all of the protections of adult offenders: formal hearings, protection against self-incrimination, the right to notice of charges, counsel, and cross-examination of witnesses and the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” judicial standard.
Also in the 70s, the rehabilitation institutes were attacked for their treatment of young offenders. Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 1974, which is still in place today. It established the separation of juvenile offenders from adult offenders, deinstitutionalized status offenders (i.e. juveniles punished for truancy, etc.), and created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The OJJDP provided funds to states to create alternatives to institutionalizing young offenders, and also preventative programs in communities.
The whole “preventative” approach was short-lived and quickly replaced by the “get tough” approach, still widely supported today. Violent crimes rose and it was immediately assumed that preventing crimes was not working. Treatment of children in the court system shifted again, but this time toward treating children as adults. Each state has its own laws and procedures regarding young offenders, so there is some variation. Not all states give juveniles a jury trial.
In general today, the juvenile justice system assumes that children are developmentally different from adults and that they can be rehabilitated. Access to juvenile records is limited because if a young offender is rehabilitated it would be unfair to judge them based on an offense committed when they were a juvenile. Young offenders are judged delinquent, rather than guilty. Children were originally only tried as adults and transferred to the adult justice system when the crime they are accused of is deemed a serious “adult” crime, but because of the ease of transferring the cases in many states, more arbitrarily petty offenses are being tried in adult court in an attempt to lessen crime committed by minors.
Researchers have found that the threat of adult punishment for juveniles has no effect on serious juvenile crime. Those given adult penalties for crimes also tend to be more likely to re-offend and do so sooner than those handled by the juvenile system. In other studies an escalation in the nature of offenses by juveniles incarcerated by the adult system has been indicated. No studies have shown significant deterrence in youth crime rates. For all intents and purposes, the increase in children tried as a adults is appearing to have the opposite effect on crime rates.