By Attorney Wolde Rose
A strong area of debate in the legal fraternity, more so in recent years, is that of charging and trying juveniles, usually under age-16 as adults for serious, violent crimes, like murder.
Contrary to what some members of the public believe, there is no law that states someone under 16 who commit murder should be treated with more leniency by the courts, compared to an older accused.
Under 16 charged with murder tried as adults
In fact, Florida and most other states allow youth under 16 charged with murder to be tried as adults. However, youth convicts do not generally receive the death penalty. This results from an earlier U. S. Supreme Court ruling that stipulates capital punishment is unconstitutional for anyone who hasn’t reached their 16th birthday. However, some states do impose the death penalty for convicts 16 years old and over.
Mainly, it‘s left to the recommendation of a prosecutor, and a judge’s decision judge whether or not to try an under-16 youth as an adult on a murder charge. The ultimate decision is subjective and largely results from the ability of the defense attorney to draw upon the sympathies of the court. It also depends on the particular circumstances of a case to plead to the court that the youth client be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.
The subjective nature of the ultimate decision can, and often leads, to controversy. This is so especially when the issue of race and social class is believed to have been taken into consideration to, or not, try a youth convict as an adult.
Fully cognizant of action
A stance taken by most prosecutors is that if someone under 16, was in his/her right mind, not mentally challenged, deliberately engaged in action that resulted in the death of another human, he/she was fully cognizant of his/her actions, acted similar to an adult, should be tried and face punishment as an adult. In other words, prosecutors, and some judges believe it’s the crime committed, not the age of the accused that’s the primary factor in the case.
It’s not unusual for defense attorneys to experience severe stress in representing a youth charged for murder. Although American law determines one is innocent until proven guilty, it’s the responsibility of the justice system to hold people who break the law responsible for their actions.
Serves as deterrent to further crime?
There’s also a perception, among some prosecutors that trying youth as adults and imposing harsh sentences serves as a deterrent against incidences of youth crime. However, there’s no empirical evidence that trying youth as adults is deterring youth crimes.
On the other hand, some members of the legal fraternity and the public, believe because a youth may have acted out of context in committing a crime, he/she should be given a chance for rehabilitation, rather than subjecting him/her to long years in adult prison. There’s a strong argument that a youth who serves time in juvenile prison, is likely to turn around his life, and become a law-abiding adult when is released from, compared to a youth who was sentenced to an adult facility.