Pros & Cons: Trying youth offenders as adults

Attorney Wolde Rose

Trying juveniles (under age 16) as adults for violent crimes such as murder has been a strong area of debate in the legal fraternity. Contrary to what many believe, no law states that courts should treat juveniles who commit murder with more leniency.

Like most states, Florida allows juveniles charged with serious crimes to be tried as adults. However, they generally do not receive the death penalty, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stipulates capital punishment as 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.

How a juvenile will be tried is mainly left to the prosecutor’s recommendation and a judge’s decision. And this decision is largely influenced by the defense attorney’s ability to inspire sympathy from the court. This subjective nature can, and often, leads to controversy, especially when race and class biases may have affected the case.

Most prosecutors accept that if defendants under 16 were in their right mind, were not mentally challenged, and deliberately engaged in the death or severe harm of another human, then they acted in the manner of an adult. In other words, prosecutors – and some judges – believe it’s the crime committed and not the age of the accused that’s the primary factor.

It’s not unusual for defense attorneys to experience severe stress when representing a juvenile charged with a serious crime, as although American law says one is innocent until proven guilty, it is the justice system’s responsibility to hold people who break the law accountable.

There is also a perception among some prosecutors that trying youth as adults and imposing harsh sentences serves as a deterrent against youth crime. However, there’s no empirical evidence showing that trying juvenile offenders as adults is a detriment. 

On the other hand, some members of the legal fraternity and the public believe because juveniles may have acted out of context in committing a crime, they should be given a chance for rehabilitation, rather than subjecting them to long years in prison. There’s a strong argument that a youth who goes to rehab is likely to turn around his life, and become a law abiding adult when he is released, compared to a youth imprisoned in an adult facility.




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