Steinberg states that there are some issues which are very challenging to the society concerning the nature of human development and justice when it comes to serious juvenile crimes (para, 1). This is due to the fact that people do not expect crimes to be committed by children let alone children being criminals. The unexpected connection between childhood and criminality brings about a dilemma that is hard to resolve (Steinberg para, 1).
Some of the ways out of this dilemma are: trying to redefine the offense as something of less magnitude than a crime and redefining the offender as somebody who is not actually a child. For almost a century now, the American society has chosen to redefine an offense as something less than a crime (Siegel and Welsh p, 211). Hoge, Guerra and Boxer states that most juvenile offenses have for long time been treated as delinquent acts that need adjudication within a separate justice system for juveniles (p, 154).
This system is designed in such a way as to recognize the exceptional needs as well as the immature condition of young persons and stresses more on rehabilitation over punishment. Steinberg asserts that the two guiding principles that have prevailed concerning young people are that: they have different competencies as compared to adults, which necessitates adjudication in a different type of system, and that they have different potential for change and therefore qualify for a second chance as well as an attempt at rehabilitation (para, 4).
The operations of juvenile courts are carried out under the presumptions that offenders are immature meaning that their development is incomplete, their judgment is immature, and their character is still undergoing development. However, in the recent past as Steinberg states, there has been a tremendous shift concerning the way crimes committed by juveniles are treated by policymakers as well as the general public (para, 6). This shift has resulted in great changes concerning policies that deal with the way juvenile offenders are treated.
Gale argues that instead of choosing to defend offences committed by young people as delinquent, the society has opted to redefine them as adults and transfer them to the criminal justice system that deals with adult crime (p, 76). Some proponents in society have come to agree that there are those young offenders who should be transferred to the adult criminal justice system due to the fact that they pose a serious threat to the safety of the society where other juveniles live (Siegel and Welsh, p. 214).
Proponents, as Hoge, Guerra and Boxer illustrates, argue that the magnitude of the offense committed by these youth deserves a relatively more harsh punishment (p. 174). They also argue that the history of repeated offenses do not augur well for definitive rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. This however, does not describe the large number of young people who are currently being put on trial in the adult criminal justice system. Steinberg argues that majority of these have been charged with crimes that are not as violent to merit such a harsh punishment (para, 7).
When this transfer of juvenile offenders to adult system begins to become a rule instead of an exception, it characterizes a primary challenge to the very ground that the juvenile system was anchored in- that young people are different from adults. Debates concerning transfer policies can be viewed from different angles. Developmental psychologists would ask whether the differences drawn between people of various ages under the law are rational in light of what is known concerning age variation in different aspects of social, emotional, and intellectual functioning (Hoge, Guerra and Boxer, p. 79).
One major issue based on developmental psychology that emerges is about the creation of a boundary between young people and adults in matters of criminal justice. Developmental psychology seeks to identify the scientific reasons that justify the separate treatment of adults and young people within the criminal justice system, especially with reference to the age bracket, 12-17 years, highly under political analysis currently (Steinberg para, 9). First and foremost, this age bracket is an intrinsically intermediary phase.
It involves swift as well as dramatic changes in individual’s social, intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities. It is a phase where a line concerning competence and incompetence of individuals can be drawn. Secondly, teenage years are a period of potential flexibility (Gale p, 98). Young people are heavily influenced by experiences in school, at home, as well as other social settings. To the level that flexibility is possible, transfer of young people into a criminal justice system that rules out a rehabilitative response may be an unrealistic public opinion (Siegel and Welsh, p. 11).
Adolescence is a decisive phase through which numerous developmental trajectories are firmly set up and increasingly hard to change. Numerous experiences that adolescents go through have devastating cumulative impacts. Irrational decisions and poorly formulated policies relating to young offenders may have unpredictable harmful outcomes (Gale, p. 104). According to Steinberg, mitigating factors such as mental illness, emotional stress and self defense should be critically evaluated when trying a young person (para, 14).
A punishment that is fair to an adult may be unfair to a young person who was not aware of the penalties of his/her actions. It would therefore be unethical to give life sentences to juvenile offenders. The way laws are interpreted and applied should vary when dealing with a case in which a defendant understanding of the law is limited by intellectual and emotional immaturity. The repercussions of administering long and severe punishment are very different when the offender is a young person as compared to when he/she is an adult (Steinberg, para. 17).
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