Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts

Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts

Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts

Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts


2007 Ruth Shonle Cavan Young Scholar Award presented by the American Society of Criminology

2007 American Society of Criminology Michael J. Hindelang Award for the Most Outstanding Contribution to Research in Criminology

By comparing how adolescents are prosecuted and punished in juvenile and criminal (adult) courts, Aaron Kupchik finds that prosecuting adolescents in criminal court does not fit with our cultural understandings of youthfulness. As a result, adolescents who are transferred to criminal courts are still judged as juveniles. Ultimately, Kupchik makes a compelling argument for the suitability of juvenile courts in treating adolescents. Judging Juveniles suggests that justice would be better served if adolescents were handled by the system designed to address their special needs.


Just over a century ago, the juvenile court was created in Cook County, Illinois. Although scholars might disagree about the motives of the court's founders, most would agree that the creation of a juvenile court was a natural result of shifting social consciousness about youth. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, childhood developed as a social category, as the Enlightenment ushered in new ideas about children as incompetents in need of care. A new ideal of children as dependent, lacking the mental and physical capacities of adults, and in need of guidance arose and was universally accepted. This modern conception of youthfulness necessitated separate court systems for juveniles and adult offenders.

Over the past few decades, however, increasing numbers of adolescents have been denied the protections of the juvenile court in favor of prosecution and punishment in criminal, adult court. Since the mid-1970s, nearly every U.S. state has revised its laws to facilitate the transfer of adolescents from juvenile to criminal court (these laws are thus referred to as “transfer laws”). Some states have lowered the age at which an adolescent is eligible to be transferred by a judge to criminal court; some states have allowed prosecutors to directly file adolescents' cases in criminal court, prior to any hearing in the juvenile court; and some states created laws that automatically exclude certain adolescents (based on their ages and charged offenses) from juvenile court. The specifics of states' transfer laws vary considerably, but the end result is that more and more youth under age eighteen are now prosecuted in criminal court rather than juvenile court.

What happened to the idea that adolescents are less mature, and therefore less culpable, or blameworthy, for their offenses than adults? Slogans like “old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time” offer a new . . .

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