For nearly three decades, juvenile crime and the number of juveniles actually prosecuted has sharply declined. But the deadly school shooting in Michigan brings into sharp focus some deep controversy surrounding juvenile justice: whether young people accused of crimes should be charged as a adults.
The 15-year-old accused of killing four fellow students is being charged as an adult with murder and terrorism.
The primary focus of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — providing services and treatments to young people in trouble and trying to understand why a child ended up doing what they did. Those legal protections evaporate once a child is charged as an adult.
Although children have been tried as adults since the juvenile justice system was created, there’s been a big decline in those cases over the past 15 years. Marcy Mistrett, the director of youth justice at the Sentencing Project, which advocates to end what it calls extreme sentencing, says charging juveniles as adults dropped from nearly 250,000 a year to 50,000.
“So while we’ve made tremendous progress, I want us all to take a minute to realize what we mean when we’re saying 50,000 children every year are still prosecuted as adults in this country,” says Mistrett. She argues that’s way too many and that it’s in part because of her efforts that there’s been a decline. She helped back a campaign called “Raise the Age,” an initiative that called for states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old.
In most states where there is a separate juvenile court, 18 years old is the established age to be considered an adult. That wasn’t the case for several others. “There were 14 states that set it lower than that,” says Mistrett, “and now we’re down to three. So only Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia still consider every 17-year-old that gets arrested as adults automatically.”
The “Raise the Age” legislation was approved in Michigan two years ago and went into effect on Oct. 1, meaning 17-year-olds will no longer automatically be charged as adults.
Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says whether or not to charge a juvenile as an adult depends on what society is trying to accomplish.
“If it’s just supposed to send a message to that kid and all other people that we take this seriously and we are not going to stand for this behavior therefore we are punishing you, than it accomplishes that purpose,” says Butts. However, he says, if the idea is to improve public safety or prevent future crime, decades of research shows that is rarely the result.
How someone who isn’t 18 years old typically gets transferred into the adult system varies by state. Judges in some juvenile courts waive their jurisdiction and transfer a case to adult court. In other instances, state law automatically considers a young person an adult if they are caught with a gun or commit a violent crime.
In some places, prosecutors can skip the juvenile hearing process entirely and directly charge a young person as an adult — just as the Michigan prosecutor did when she announced charges against the accused 15-year-old in the Oxford High School shooting.
Advocates say a problem arises when children are prosecuted as adults because there’s little recognition of the science of adolescent development. James Dold, CEO of the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids, says the conversation needs to be more nuanced when it comes to transferring juveniles to adult courts, especially in the case of a homicide.
“It’s a tragedy all the way around. But at the same time, there is this balance that needs to be struck between protecting public safety and recognizing that the person who did this is a child and their child status matters,” he says.
He says that’s particularly true if it’s a child with underlying mental health issues or severe trauma in their background. He and other advocates argue that’s exactly why a separate court for juveniles was created in the first place — to acknowledge just how different children are from adults.