Throughout the nation, states have set boundaries that allocate the age at which a person who has been charged with a crime may be treated as a minor, and who may be tried as an adult. In most states, the conversion of jurisdictional age is 18, while in other states citizens are considered to be adults in the court system by the ages 17, and even 16.
The distinction was created more than a century ago, and subsists for the purpose of shaping our youth. Juvenile courts work to supervise and rehabilitate young criminals in order to reshape them into productive members of society. Simply punishing them for their actions can lead them down a path of further transgression.
But when does a juvenile delinquent deserve a second chance? In the 1980’s and 90’s court systems around the country began to alter their laws in order to invite the opportunity to try certain minors as adults.
Each state varies in the way that they have set up a minimum threshold and have created circumstances under which minors may be tried as adults. Many states charge certain juveniles as adults starting at age 16, while some others have dropped the eligibility to 13 years old. A few states, such as Arkansas, Kansas and Washington, allow any minor who has committed a serious crime like homicide to be tried as an adult, regardless of age.
Minors are tried as adults for a variety of reasons. Factors that are examined when deciding under which court system to try a defendant are:
- The serious nature of the crime
- Whether or not the juvenile has been convicted of crimes in the past
- The age of the minor – Is he or she close to reaching adulthood?
- Have past rehabilitation efforts proven to be unsuccessful?
- How much time would youth services have to work with the juvenile?
How it Works
While transfer laws differ from state to state, they all fall under three central categories.
- Judicial Waiver Laws: This is the most common method of transfer. Under this law, a judge or prosecutor will submit a “waiver,” requesting that the juvenile court waives jurisdiction. Upon submission of the request, the minor is entitled to a hearing with attorney representation. The hearing exists to ensure that the prosecutor can prove probable cause that the minor did, in fact, commit the crime that he or she has been charged with. The court will then examine the minor’s background, court records and willingness to get treatment before making a decision to try the minor as an adult. When a court verifies a transfer, and the transfer is complete, the process will start from the beginning (arraignment), rather than continue from where it left off. These waivers are examined on a case-by-case basis.
- Prosecutorial Discretion or Concurrent Jurisdiction Laws: Under this set of laws, the minor is not entitled to a formal hearing. The decision to try outside of the juvenile court system is handed over directly to the prosecutor.
- Statutory Exclusion Laws: These laws simply exclude certain defendants from having the right to be tried in a juvenile court. A juvenile accused of an excluded offense is treated as an adult from the get go.
The nation is currently shifting toward lowering the minimum age at which a child/minor can be tried as an adult, partially due to the rise in young crime.
The argument persists: Is trying a minor as an adult ethical? Or does it breach some moral, or even legal, code of conduct?