Trying Adolescents as Adults In The Criminal Justice System

| 2 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

                Since 1996, there have been 46 school shootings in America.  One hundred thirty-nine students and teachers were killed.  These numbers are astounding.  All of the murders were adolescents during the time of the shooting.  This poses the question, should our criminal justice system try them as adults?

                The initial response as to whether adolescents should be held to adult standard for criminal behavior was, absolutely, as the old adage goes "do the crime, do the time."  However, many psychological factors must be explored before we can make a cut and dry verdict.  Some of the murders claimed their girlfriend was going out with another classmates, others claimed fellow classmates teased them or claimed they were depressed.  So what does make criminals commit crimes?  Some of the theories associated with criminal behavior include biological theories, sociological theories, and social psychological theories. 

                Biological theories view criminal behavior as the result of genetics, psychophysiology, neurological functioning, and biochemistry.  Genetics play a role in that sons who are criminals have a greater likelihood of having criminal parents.  Males are drawn to physical aggression more than female due to testerone levels and the possession of an extra Y chromosome.  Genetics also play a role in that during prenatal development lack of nutrients or exposure to toxic agents may result in mild or severe deficits in cognition and behavior these factors are markers of aggressive behavior.  With sociological theories factors such as socioeconomic status, which is based on education, occupation, income and neighborhood characteristics all play a role in sociological theories.  Lower the socioeconomic status reflects a higher risk for criminal behavior. Social psychological theories claim dispositional and situational factors influence criminal behavior.   I do feel these factors con hold some validity yet some sort of punishment should be put in place.

                In any court trial, there are prejudices that develop, interest prejudice, specific prejudice, generic prejudice, and normative prejudice.  Interest prejudice refers to the juror's interest or stake in the outcome of a trial.  Specific prejudice refers to a juror holding opinions or beliefs that interfere with his or her ability to be impartial in a case.  Generic prejudice refers to general prejudices (race or gender views) that would interfere with an unbiased evaluation of evidence.  Normative prejudice happens when a juror believes the community supports a particular outcome of the case to the point his or her ability to decide the case with impartiality based on the evidence is compromised. 

                  Youthful criminal choices are treated at a lesser degree than that of a typical offender for reasons like their unformed character (Steinberg & Scott, 2003).  The adolescent's behavior is out of character and decision-making capacities are impaired by emotional disturbances, mental illness, or retardation, or unusually coercive circumstances (Steinberg & Scott, 2003).  I agree on some point with unformed character however, I also think there is a point when an adolescent should no longer be able to hide behind excuses but need to take responsibility for their actions.    Although adolescence begins at age ten and ends by about age eighteen, I do think there should be an alternative way to determine whether an adolescent should be held to adult standard for crime committed (Arnett, 2010).  Premeditated and thought out acts should require the adolescent to be tried as an adult.   In the case of the school shootings, the criminals engaged in premeditated murder.  The criminals had the knowledge needed to use the gun and the damage it would cause.  They had to think about how they were going to take the weapons to school, which they would kill, and how he or she would carry out the action. 

                When treating immaturity as mitigating condition a few concerns can arise.  First, young recidivists may keep committing crimes, which inflict great social harm, and therefore they will need tried as adults (Steinberg & Scott, 2003).  Second, immaturity treated as a mitigating condition may send the wrong signal to the adolescent or other adolescents that one can participate in an adult crime and not have to pay adult consequences (Steinberg & Scott, 2003).

                 One can take into consideration all of the biopsychosocial factors; however, one must like a juror have an unbiased ruling.  We must also take into consideration non-bias does not mean not guilty.  It means you listen and judge the facts not opinions.  In the case of these murders, the criminals did an adult crime, which should have adult penalties. 



Arnett, J. J. (2010). Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood A Cultural Approach (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Pracrical Problems. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Steinberg, L., & Scott, E. S. (2003). Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Deelopmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty. American Psychologist , 1009-1018.



No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:


I agree with you on the point that acts of premeditation should be treated as adults when sentenced. My stance at present is that adolescent offenders who commit felonies, specifically violent felonies, should be treated as adults. Likewise, adolescent offenders of capital crimes should be eligible for the death penalty where offered (though I understand that is an entirely different conversation altogether).

When we review the reasons for recidivism, studies seem to reveal similar factors where predictors are concerned. Benda, Corwin, and Toombs (2001) state that the main predictors of recidivism are: prior incarceration, age the criminal career began, gang affiliation, and age of onset of chemical use (additional factors are listed in order of importance; these listed are the most influential). Trulson, Haerle, DeLisi, and Marquart (2011) looked at adolescent offenders who were sentenced to a blended juvenile-into-adult rehabilitation program (incarceration), and released prior to being integrated into the adult program. Out of 1,804 offenders fitting this description, they found that about half of them were later re-arrested for a felony crime. They found that the most significant predictors of this recidivism were substance abuse and gang affiliates (among others not listed here; these were the top two discussed).

What seems to continue to require a more significant intervention is the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. When it comes to sentencing these adolescents, it seems as though jurors and judges are conflicted as to where to send them. Therein lays the confound: if we believe they should be treated and sentenced as adults, they should be sent to adult facilities. However, part of the job of the system is to keep prisoners safe. There is often major objection that adolescent offenders being tried as adults should be eligible for placement in adult facilities for fear of their safety. If these individuals are tried as adults, shouldn't they be sentenced and placed as such?


Benda, B.B., Corwyn, R.F., & Toombs, N.J. (2001). Recidivism among adolescent serious offenders: prediction of entry into the correctional system for adults. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 28, 588.

Trulson, C.R., Haerle, D.R., DeLisi, M., & Marquart, J.W. (2011). Blended sentencing, early release, and recidivism of violent institutionalized delinquents. The Prison Journal, 91 (3), 255-278.

Adolescents unfortunately are capable of committing heinous crimes, however I don’t feel I don’t feel the solution is to try a juvenile as adult, especially is that juvenile is under the age of 18. I believe this because for a juvenile that commits a crime still isn’t even equipped with the same thought processes or mentalities that an adult offender has. A juvenile is still mentally growing and their minds aren’t yet fully developed. I understand that it takes some thought processes to consider the possibilities of taking gun into a school and actually pointing it at another student and shooting them; that is inconceivable to me, but I think there is more to the situations in why adolescents actually get to this point, there is warning signs that lead up to this. Some adolescents feel tremendous pressures; such as being bullied, being abused or come from poor households and the pressures get to be too much, some adolescents take their own life’s and some lash out at others. However, I do not agree with all the violence that takes place in our school systems or on the streets involving adolescence and I think that something needs to be done, because the victims in these horrific tragedies are innocent bystanders.
Once an adolescent commits such a heinous crime if we sentence him or her as adult that leaves the option open for the adolescent to be given a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if we sentence a child to a prison cell for a life sentence without the possibility of parole, we are taking his or her young life away from them as it is, so to me there is no difference in a life sentence than a death sentence. So really it’s no different than what the adolescent did to their victim; an eye for an eye. Juveniles just like adult offenders make mistakes and commit horrible heinous crimes and like adult offenders they should be held accountable for their crimes, but in light of their age, stage of development and greater capacity of rehabilitation a life sentence without the possibility of parole seems to be a harsh punishment for such young individuals, many of whom were victims themselves of abuse or neglect (Arthur & Star-Armstrong, 2011). ). If you also consider the other legalities involved, teens are not allowed to enter into contracts, vote, get married or sign themselves out of school, but they can plead guilty and go through the entire complex legal proceedings of a trial and be sent to prison to die without regard to their age or diminished capacity (Arthur & Star-Armstrong, 2011).
Arthur. P. & Star-Armstrong. B. (2011). Locked Away Forever, A Growing campaign against Juvenile life sentences. Retrieved November 22, 2011 from

Leave a comment

Subscribe to receive notifications of follow up comments via email.
We are processing your request. If you don't see any confirmation within 30 seconds, please reload your page.

Search This Blog

Full Text  Tag

Recent Entries

moved to a new location
This blog has moved to a new location.…
I Know Me Best
One of the most surprising things I learned this semester was that we, as human beings, tend to misjudge…
Facebook Anonymous
It seems like everyone has a Facebook these days, all my coworkers, peers, parents, grandparents, etc. Boasting statistics like,…