Examining Legal Issues: Juvenile Offenders in Criminal Court and Adult Prison

Article excerpt

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1995 permits children 13 and older who commit violent crimes with a firearm on federal property to be prosecuted as adults. The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) has said that serious juvenile offenders "should be thrown in jail, the key should be thrown away and there should be very little or no effort to rehabilitate them." What are the consequences of such attitudes toward juvenile offenders? The increased frequency with which serious or chronic juvenile offenders are tried in criminal court and then incarcerated in adult correctional facilities raises three important questions: To what extent does a trial in criminal court and/or incarceration in adult prisons promote or retard community protection, juvenile offenders' accountability and the development of competencies in juvenile offenders?

National Trends in Juvenile Justice

"Never in our history have we seen this phenomenon of youth violence as random and as inexplicable," observes U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Recent studies show that juvenile crime has risen in proportion to the overall crime rate since the mid-1980s. Juveniles arrested for violent index crimes (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, theft and arson) increased 60 percent since 1987 (as compared with a 24 percent increase for adults), and in 1996, 2,900 juveniles were arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter, a 50 percent increase since 1987. The juvenile homicide rate has increased (20 percent), as has the robbery rate (50 percent, vs. 13 percent for adults). Drug arrests of juveniles have increased 120 percent since 1992.

The greatest increase in juvenile crime has been among the youngest offenders. Crime committed by juveniles under age 15 increased 94 percent between 1980 and 1995. According to the American Psychological Association, the increase in the teen population between now and 2010 may bring about further increases in violent crime.

There has, however, been some good news recently: Between 1994 and 1996, there was a 9 percent decrease in the number of juveniles arrested for violent index crimes, a 7 percent decrease in juveniles arrested for burglary, and a 31 percent decrease in juvenile homicide arrests. Moreover, juvenile rape arrests are at their lowest level since 1977, and robbery arrests, while a bit higher than the low level of 1984, are actually 21 percent below the 1980 level.

McCollum's statement about the need to lock up juveniles in adult prisons and throw away the key echoes public sentiment, which for some time now has been demanding a "get tough" approach to the perceived increase in juvenile crime. There is growing consensus that: 1) juvenile offenders are responsible for their actions and should be punished; 2) many juvenile offenders are beyond rehabilitation; 3) rehabilitation does not work; 4) greater deterrence is needed; and 5) violent juveniles must remain incarcerated into adulthood. The juvenile codes of at least half the states now emphasize punishment rather than rehabilitation.

State Transfer Laws

Real or perceived increases in juvenile crime have triggered statutory changes designed to satisfy societal concerns, increase the efficiency and impact of the juvenile justice system, and curb further growth in juvenile crime rates. Along with the federal government, states have responded to the public's outrage at rising juvenile crime by revising their transfer statutes, which provide for transfer of juveniles from juvenile court to adult criminal court. Changes in state transfer laws have increased the pool of eligible juveniles by lowering the age requirement and expanding the list of transferrable crimes, or by eliminating some factors that judges must consider before transferring. Virtually all states have set the minimum transfer age at 14 or younger, and many states now require transfer for juveniles who commit violent felonies such as murder, rape or armed robbery. …