At What Age Can We Hold Juveniles Criminally Responsible?

NOVJM has devoted this website primarily to remembering our murdered loved ones and advocating for victims’ rights, and we have tried to avoid getting specific about what we think the specific laws should be regarding juvenile offender sentencing. Victims, cases, and states differ, and we support all victims’ family members’ rights to express their own views on how they feel in their individual cases. Laws and sentencing are for our courts, legislatures, and citizens as a whole to decide. One of the more troubling specifics that our society has to sift through is the question of what age a person becomes old enough to be held criminally culpable as an adult.

Bright Lines

States define adulthood criminally in different ways. Most draw a line at 18, some states 17 and even 16. Some differ depending on if the crime was a felony or a misdemeanor, violent or non-violent. One of the questions in this public policy debate about juvenile offender sentencing that continues to plague us all is where to draw those “bright lines” in the law.

For example, at 18 not everyone is smart enough to cast an educated vote, and at 16 not everyone is mature enough to drive, and at 65 not everyone is ready to retire. But the law draws “bright lines” because it really has to – we have no choice in our society sometimes. We have to set averages that can be broadly applied, knowing that at times those bright lines will be wildly inappropriate to the individual case.

On our Offender Page we discuss further this issue of adolescent, juvenile, adult, and how the law generally sees these points.

On our Research and the Brain page we share some important psychological and neurological research, including the all-important focus on what the brain science actually says and how it has been horribly misinterpreted by offender advocates, and to a certain extent, wrongly bought into by some courts.

Sophisticated Thinking About A Complex Issue

But here, inspired by an article in the Seattle Times called “Right From Wrong – At What Age Do Children Develop a Moral Sense, And Understand What It Means To Commit A Crime?” we decided to add thoughtfully to this complicated question – where SHOULD we draw the line on ages for young people when they are committing seriously violent crimes?

The Seattle Times article supports information encouraging to both “sides” in this debate: offender advocates who want to end long sentences for teen killers; and to people like us who care deeply about public and personal safety and recognize, quite factually and realistically, that some people even at a younger age could be so irretrievably dangerous that they cannot be allowed to ever walk among us again. This gives the article even more credibility – because it does not take sides, it does put forward best data-driven thinking by experts in the juvenile field.

Read the whole article for yourself. We certainly do not disagree with its emphasis on rehabilitating most juvenile offenders and the need to treat most juveniles in their own criminal justice system. But after interviewing experts in pediatrics, juvenile medicine, psychology, juvenile rehabilitation, and child psychiatry here are some highlights worth noting in this discussion:

  • “Above all, their message was this: chronological age means nothing. . . .It is typical that children charged with crimes are not functioning at their chronological ages” – we know this means that juvenile offenders can be both more culpable and less culpable than some of their peers, depending.
  • Juveniles must be “held accountable for their behavior. . . [and] there are some who are not of adult legal age who probably need to have pretty long sentences because they have done horrendous crimes, a lot of them . . .”
  • Killing someone is a “psychological turning event” even for a young person that makes them much harder to rehabilitate.
  • Child Psychiatrist Dr William Womack says, “The things that lead a kid to not care if they kill someone make it hard for them to be part of society. They don’t look at human life as being very valuable.”

Developmental experts offered this:

  • “By age 6,normal children are developing an internal conscience. ‘They have a pretty good sense, inside themselves,of what they’re supposed to do; and if they do something wrong, bells go off for them’, Womack says.”
  • “By age 9 or 10 they grasp the idea that we have to have rules so people can get along, and we don’t have chaos.”
  • “Ages 12 and 13 tend to be a transitional, awkward period . . .However, if they’re involved with a gang where they have to go through initiation, for example, they are often very independent and streetwise at an early age – 11, or even younger.”
  • Cognitive function develops from “concrete” to “abstract” in the middle teen years, usually between 12 and 15. “That’s where a person becomes able to understand the consequences of their behavior or actions”.
  • Most experts follow Piaget’s theories that the brain changes to allow more abstract and future-oriented thought during these middle years.
  • What science tells us pretty clearly is that we must evaluate juvenile culpability on a case by case basis.
  • Dr James Farrow, Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at University of Washington School of Medicine, says a good general line is age 14 where before that time “a kid will be clearly less mature in terms of brain functioning . . .over 14, you might be able to make the case that they should be thinking like an adult.”
  • Farrow cites the “mature minor” doctrine that allows people at age 14 to consent to their own medical treatment such as mental health, substance abuse, pregnancy, etc.
  • At 14 or 15 people begin to “look at the complexity of rightness and wrongness”.
  • The capacity to think about the complexity of morality takes place fairly early in adolescence – “as early as 11 or 12 with some children – and commonly by 14 to 17”

We note with interest at this point that the LAWS in all 50 of the United States reflect exactly the age ranges and observations of these experts!

The article goes on to stress how maturity and culpability vary widely from individual to individual, and that often capacity for morality does not mean that they have been “taught” properly.  Another interesting point is how younger adolescents sometimes have “magical thinking” that nothing will happen to them if they do something bad.  The experts recommend that “powerful penalties” for offenders under age 14 are not meaningful as deterrents because going to prison for the rest of their lives is not something they can “compute . . .they feel invulnerable.”

History Always Provides Important Context

We have discussed elsewhere on this website about what we learned from history. . . .that up until the Industrial Revolution adolescence did NOT exist for most of human history in ALL cultures. Life spans were shorter. All people went into marriage and family rearing on their own soon after puberty. Ritual initiation into adulthood in all religions and cultures took place around 13 or so. Young people passed almost immediately from child to adult – with nothing in-between.

The economic competition of the industrial era made it necessary to delay entry into adulthood and create the artificial construct of adolescence because in factories young people could work just as well, and cheaper than older people. 30-year-olds did not want to compete for a factory job with 14 year olds, medicine was getting better, and educational opportunities expanded with the printing press, creating better and longer schooling experiences that also helped to keep young people out of the job market longer.

And the field of Anthropology has been very instructive on this question – we are the ONLY species with such long childhoods! Even long -lived and high functioning species like chimpanzees kick the young one out on their own by ages 3-5. There are many psychologists who think the now two-plus decades that our species keeps hold on our young people has actually become significantly dysfunctional and problematic not only for our young, but for us all.

The Laws Today

The more we take in the breadth of expertise on this issue, the more we are convinced that the laws in most state are pretty much right on target. Few in the general public really have an appreciation for how much careful thought and debate, hard work and expertise, compromise, principle and leadership goes into wrestling a policy into a state law. When considering the sum whole of all 50 states, all 50 state legislatures, the US Congress, and the many, many very capable people who contribute to how our laws are made, we see that the system has actually made some very good decisions and drawn some very well-considered lines.

All states and the federal government have come to these same conclusions: Older juveniles can be held criminally responsible in some cases. Some people are hopelessly, defectively dangerous even at a very young age. Most juveniles deserve a real chance at rehabilitation for most crimes. Exceptionally violent crime changes young people into people that are very hard to allow out in society for a very, very long time. Ages 14-17 are reasonable ages for consideration for trial in the adult criminal justice system – on a case by case basis – because the juvenile system releases offenders after only a few years when they turn 21. In some cases, the juvenile system released offenders who are still very dangerous

Prosecutors who we elect get to exercise tremendous discretion about how to charge cases. Judges get to make significant decisions about how criminal cases proceed. Every offender is represented by legal defense. They get appeals after their convictions. They get usually years to prepare their cases before trial. They get to make many motions and argue evidence. They get to make the case for receiving a lesser sentence at many points in the system.

Overall, the system really HAS worked well, really has drawn some very correct lines, and that is why we at NOVJM sometimes find the rhetoric and propaganda from offender advocates to be at times particularly simplistic, shallow, and uncaring about the well-being of those at risk from certain dangerous teens.

Some of those working against the prison sentences being served by those who murdered our loved ones just repeat the same “its a human rights violation to imprison a juvenile” no matter their crime, no matter their age, if they are under 18.

Sadly we know that the major human rights violations in this discussion were the ones suffered by our murdered loved ones at the hands of their killers. Murder – the ultimate human rights violation.

Since we have found that many of these advocates would not be in this fight without the funding streams that support it, we have grown weary of their unwillingness to see the discussion about “bright lines” in the law with the breadth with which we have learned to view it.

Article Describes Different Processes for Juveniles Through Justice System

This news story from the Chicago Tribune in early 2014 quotes NOVJM and well-describes the TWO choices for prosecutors and judges – should the offender be tried as a juvenile? Or as an adult? Our position in using the best risk assessment tools and be open to either possibility, depending on the individual facts of the case and the characteristics of the offender. While the large vast majority of teen offenders are “rehabilitatible” and should remain in the juvenile system, in some thankfully rare cases, even a teen can already be a dangerous psychopath or hardened sociopath, too risky to be allowed to remain free.

Teen accused of killing sister could be tried as adult

Adult conviction could mean years in prison for 14-year-old

By Lisa Black and Duaa Eldeib, Tribune reporters  January 24, 2014

Had she been one year older, a 14-year-old Mundelein girl accused of fatally stabbing her 11-year-old sister would automatically have faced murder charges as an adult under Illinois law.

But because the suspect is younger than 15, Lake County’s top prosecutor has discretion in recommending whether she be tried in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. The path chosen could lead to very different destinations: If convicted in adult court, the girl could get 20 to 60 years in prison. A guilty verdict in juvenile court would likely mean juvenile detention for seven years, or until she turns 21.

“This will be a tough decision,” said State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, who could spend several weeks reviewing the case before making a recommendation. Among the factors he’ll consider are the girl’s age, criminal and mental health history, public safety and the circumstances of the alleged murder, including possible premeditation.

“I want to make sure I have all of the necessary information required to make an informed decision,” he said.

The 14-year-old remains at a Vernon Hills juvenile detention facility, with arraignment scheduled for Friday.

She’ll remain locked up while loved ones pay final respects to her sister, Dora Betancourt, whose funeral will be in Libertyville on Wednesday.

Dora’s severely wounded body was found in her bedroom Tuesday morning after police said they responded to a 911 call placed by the 14-year-old.

Authorities have said the teen told police that she had fetched a kitchen knife and stabbed her sister multiple times that morning because she was angry over a fight they had had the prior evening.

The teen, who initially blamed the attack on an intruder, complained that Dora was not grateful for her older sister’s efforts around the house.

The children lived with their mother, who had left for work.

A juvenile judge will have the final call on whether the girl is tried as an adult, if Nerheim makes that recommendation, experts said.

“The ultimate question is what is in the best interests of the public,” said Alison Flaum, legal director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school.

In the juvenile court system, proceedings and records are more restricted from public view than in adult cases. The teen, if convicted, would be released at or before age 21. Her criminal record would be available to police, and she would likely be placed on a state violent offender’s list that would alert the public to her history, said Flaum, who is opposed to juveniles being tried as adults.

“It’s a false notion that we have to choose juvenile court where everything is hidden away from public view forever or — if we are concerned about public safety — that we have to go the criminal adult route,” she said.

If the teen were convicted in adult court, she would remain in juvenile detention until at least age 17, then be moved into the regular prison system, authorities said.

“The one-year difference in this girl’s age has enormous implications for how she can or will be processed,” said David Olson, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago. He added that the “going rate” for an adult murder sentence is about 40 years.

“It’s substantial,” he said. “Depending on how you view the prospects of rehabilitation or prison, one sentence will allow her a fair amount of life being free.”

If convicted of murder as an adult, the girl would be considered a long-term inmate in an adult system whose primary purpose is to house prisoners until they serve out their sentences, said Chris Bernard, program coordinator at the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

That stands in stark contrast to the juvenile system, where the mission is rehabilitation, he said.

“They know, inevitably, any young person they have in their custody is going back out into the community,” Bernard said. “The ultimate goal is creating a person who’s ready to go back into society.”

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a national advocate for victims, said she believes that each case should be judged individually. She does not agree with hard-and-fast objections to meting out adult justice against some teenage offenders.

Impulsiveness and peer pressure are common defenses for young defendants, she said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes — rarely, thank God — there are people under the age 18 who are already so dangerous and so broken that they have to be kept away from us,” said Bishop-Jenkins, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.

“You would want to use really good risk assessment tools.”

Family friends, who described Dora and her older sister as close and loving toward one another, are still stunned by the allegations.

“Those two were inseparable,” said Christine Coleman, one of Dora’s cheerleading coaches. “They looked out for each other.”

At practice, Dora was always smiling, Coleman said.

“She was the light in everybody’s eyes,” she said. “She was that shining star.”

Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel contributed.

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