To Americans, the concept of youths committing violent crimes is not anything new. In a 1996 speech, Florida Congressmember Bill McCollum summarized America’s fear by warning us of a generation of “super predators,” an alert of an underage crime wave yet to come.
There is a general consensus that those minors who commit violent acts illustrate an adult capacity and should be tried as such in courts of law.
To date, all 50 states have passed laws allowing minors to be tried as adults in some circumstances. Presumably, allowing prosecutors the freedom to try minors as adults allows them the latitude they need to pursue justice.
The attempt to squelch juvenile crime by treating violent minors as adults is at its core problematic and inconsistent.
According to FBI statistics, youth violence over the past few years has gone down by 4 percent, leading me to believe McCollum’s “super predators” are not the looming threat he would have us believe. More importantly, those minors sent to adult prison have a 20 percent higher chance of returning to prison someday than do those who go to juvenile detention centers. This suggests minors do not rehabilitate well when imprisoned with adults.
Those juveniles sent to adult prisons are at a gross disadvantage, as minors are not emotionally or physically able to handle the stress of being incarcerated with adults. There are numerous reports from Building Blocks for Youth, an alliance of advocates for youth, which report severe acts of violence by adult inmates against juveniles, including rape and murder.
Though these facts and stories sometimes pull at our emotional heartstrings, I believe there is a much bigger reason minors should not be tried as adults in the judicial system. Prosecuting minors as adults is an inconsistent and emotional move on the part of the state.
The courts set up rules and regulations so that citizens can follow a set of laws that guides behavior. It is important this guide doesn’t change once a person is in court to face the consequences of his or her actions. It is unfair to hold someone responsible for a crime if that crime was made illegal after it was committed, as is the case when minors are suddenly held accountable for actions they weren’t expecting to be held accountable for.
Minors are those citizens under the age of 18. They are a special class of citizen, as they are considered to be emotionally and developmentally unable to make important decisions for themselves. This is why minors cannot vote, drive or enlist in the military.
Presumably, when we prosecute minors as adults, we are saying the minor has the mental capacity of an adult because of the crime he or she allegedly committed. However, simply because a minor commits an act we think only an adults is capable of, this doesn’t necessarily mean a minor has the mental capacity of an adult. To argue by analogy, a minor is physically able to sign a contract. Simply because the contract is signed does not mean the minor has mental capacity enough to be held responsible for his agreement. Holding people accountable for their actions has less to do with their physical ability to commit those actions, and more to do with their mental capacity to fully understand what those actions entail.
Additionally, minors are not treated as adults. It is unfair to give them the responsibilities adults have without extending them the rights and benefits, too. It seems especially unfair that minors cannot vote on laws or judges that potentially have the power to directly affect their lives.
For the most part, the decision to try a minor as an adult is subject to the whim of the court. In 15 states, the decision rests solely on the shoulders of the prosecuting attorney. This allows for an emotional misuse of the court system. With no laws in place determining whether or not a minor is eligible for adult treatment, judges and prosecutors have only their intuitions and feelings to guide them toward justice. As judges and attorneys are fallible, given what might be a gruesome and ferocious crime, the emotional desire to punish minors might override the courts’ dedication to fair and unbiased trials.
While I certainly feel for families who are victims of the acts of violent teens, I don’t feel prosecuting them as adults is fair, as we have yet to define the circumstances under which a minor is as responsible for his actions as an adult would be. The answer to the problem may be to change the criterion of what constitutes a minor. And until that change is made and propagated, the courts have an obligation to resist prosecuting minors as adults.
Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major and president of the Student Philosophy Society.