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On May 26, 2000, thirteen-year-old, Nathaniel Brazill shot and killed his seventh grade, English teacher at Lake Worth Middle School with a handgun. As a result, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to a state prison for twenty eight years. Now, if a person were to hear a story like this, they would probably say “Thank god they put that psychotic kid away”, and would forever label those type of kids as monsters. No one would question why these kids did what they did, and never try to understand them.
Because they believe that these “psychotic” kids are something to be feared. All we knew about Nathaniel Brazill was that he was in the seventh grade, he had somehow acquired a handgun, and he shot his teacher. What we did not know was, what the state of his mental health, and what his home environment was like. Juveniles make mistakes all the time and trying these kids as adults is not helping anyone.
As a society, we tend to acknowledge that kids, below the age of eighteen, can not and do not operate as adults, that’s why the law takes special steps to shield kids from the implications of their actions, and infrequently seeks to ameliorate the damages caused once kids make wrong decisions, by giving them a second chance. The law prohibits individuals below eighteen from voting, serving within the military, and a plethora of other things, however in some states, they’ll be hanged for crimes they committed before they reach adulthood.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the US Supreme Court prohibits execution for crimes committed at the age of fifteen or younger. Nineteen states have laws allowing the execution of a person that committed crimes at sixteen or seventeen. Since 1973, two hundred and twenty-six juvenile death sentences were imposed on these poor teens. To this day, according to ACLU, there have been twenty-two juvenile offenders who are dead and eighty-two who are still on death row.
In the article, ‘Juveniles Don’t Deserve Life Sentence’ by the author and juvenile court judge, Gail Garinger, she explains why she believes, kids should not get sentenced to life in prison and tried as an adult. Approximately seventy-nine young adolescents have been sentenced to die in prison nationwide. This was because some states tried to enact laws making it easier to impose life without parole sentences on adults. “The unintended consequence of these laws was that children as young as thirteen and fourteen who were charged as adults became subject to life without parole sentences.”(Garinger) These teenagers should not be judged by their crime first but rather the scenario, because there’s always three sides to a story, in which the judge needs to hear. These include the victim’s point of view, the teens’ point of view, and the truth of the whole situation. When giving a person a sentencing in general, the court system needs to take into consideration the age, mental state, and who the person committing the crime is as a person. Deciding on whether or not to make the life sentence applicable to minors should depend on the specific situation. Everybody makes mistakes and it is not fair that in some cases the judges do not take the child’s life into consideration. Some of these teens can change their lives completely if the court system gives them a second chance and gives them a minor punishment so they can learn their lesson from the whole situation. Garinger also states in the article that young people are biologically different than adults, meaning that their brains are not fully developed to be tried in court as an adult.
While adolescents can be held accountable for their actions, scientific information demonstrates that they can not fairly be held accountable to the same extent as adults. Studies by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and the UCLA’s Department of Neuroscience finds that the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents. These findings confirm that adolescents generally have a greater tendency towards impulsivity, making unsound judgments or reasoning, and are less aware of the consequences of their actions.
A study done in 2001 at the University of California Los Angeles, states quite a few hypotheses, that have been postulated for why juveniles may engage in impulsive and risky behaviors. Accounts of juvenile trials suggest that it is a period of development associated with progressively greater efficiency of cognitive control capacities. This efficiency in cognitive control is described as dependent on the maturation of the prefrontal cortex which has yet to mature. This basic function controls reasoning and emotions. Improved cognitive control with the development of the prefrontal cortex is consistent with an increase in this ability from childhood to adulthood. Without proper cognitive function, a person can make a mistake without thinking of the consequence.
If the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed like an adults’, then how can one possibly be try a juvenile as an adult? According to Steven Drizin, a law professor of Northwestern University, “Culpability of juveniles and whether their brains are as capable of impulse control, decision-making, and reasoning as adult brains are,” is what should be focused on when you try a juvenile as an adult. And to answer whether or not a juvenile has the same capable impulse control and decision making as an adult brain does, the answer is no. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which allows restraint over hasty behavior, “doesn’t begin to mature until seventeen years of age,” states Ruben Gur of the University of Pennsylvania. The very part of the brain that is judged by the legal system, comes on board late.
Some people believe that the very essence of what dictates who is a child or an adult, are the choices the individual makes. “Choices and actions observed during adolescence represent an inflection in development that is unique from either childhood or adulthood” stated by the National Center for Health Statistics on Juvenile Behavior and Mortality. If cognitive control and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex were the basis for bad choices and behavior alone, then children should look remarkably similar or presumably worse than adolescents, This alone proves that a kid is a kid, because a kid does not think, they act with their emotions. But one can understand how hard it would be to link the changes in the teenage brain, with legal or moral accountability. Paul Thompson, a professor of neurology, even claimed: “Even though normal teens are experiencing a wildfire of tissue loss in their brains, that does not remove their accountability.” What can be inferred from this is that there are parts of the frontal lobes that allows reckless actions to restructure themselves with startling speed in the teen years. With this information, on teen brains, we can see that teens need all the help they can get to steer onto the right path in these very difficult times.
Even though there seems to be a lot of facts of why an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex in teens should allow them a certain amount of leniency, some people believe that even though an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex may limit reasoning it still does not erase the crime they have committed. For example, Jennifer Jenkins, President of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, wrote an article called “Punishment on Teen Killers”. She argues that brain development does not erase accountability to the crimes committed by these teens. She believes that these kids know full well what they are doing and should not have any leniency because of their age. It is important to keep the teenage brains in mind when we as a society decide how poor decisions should be punished.”If brain development were the reason, then teens would kill at roughly the same rates all over the world. They do not. Advocates often repeat, but truly misunderstand brain research on this issue.”(Jenkins) But one can argue that maybe it’s not the most important factor in how those decisions get made in the first place. For example, one’s economic standing and home life may be a reason to turn to crime.
The results of a new study by Mike Males from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice support the argument that teenage poverty, and teenage biology, is most to blame for these juvenile crimes. Males looked into more than fifty thousand homicides in California from 1991 to 2002. As one would expect, teenagers perpetrated more of the homicides than other age groups, Even when he did a control for poverty, teenagers still committed more crimes than other age groups
According to Males’s study, in the areas where teenagers had as much money as middle-aged people, eighty three percent of the the teenagers tended to commit fewer violent crimes. And in the areas where middle-aged people had as little money as teenagers, fifty seven percent of middle-aged people tended to commit just as many violent crimes. In other words, financially secure teens act as responsibly as a stereotypical middle-aged person, and poor middle-aged people act as recklessly as a stereotypical teen. The financial situations of the would-be perpetrators had a lot bigger impact than what age they were at the time. And that impact was huge: The homicide rate among the poorest teenagers Males looked at was eighteen times higher than it was among the wealthiest. We can infer that when teenagers are stressing about money they will try something reckless in order to become financially sound.
Economic standing is not the only other factor to why juveniles go into a life of crime. It is also caused by problems at home. Cholee Clay, a person working in Criminal justice and volunteers in juvenile group homes, states neglected teens are more prone to become criminals, because of the lack of love and affection they feel they deserved from the family. They channel their negative energy in committing crimes. A child is at risk of delinquency when both parents are too busy or lack the motivation to “parent their child. Parents who give their child too much freedom also contributes to juvenile delinquency. According to SOY foundation, a youth empowerment organization, “Children who are given many adult privileges at an early age, such as staying out late, also are more likely to become involved in crime.” On the other hand, parents who use harsh punishments, or abuse their child, are also a known cause of juvenile delinquency. Abuse often create inner anger within a child that can cause them to act out. This is quite evident in occurrences of abuse.
Some new research suggests an association between childhood abuse and later involvement in delinquency. A study done by Carolyn Smith and Terence P. Thornberry, both professors of Criminal Justice, examines this issue using official and self‐report data from the Rochester teens Development Study. This analysis addresses three central issues: the significance of the relationship between early child abuse and later delinquency, official and self‐reported; the possibility of spuriousness in this relationship; and the impact of more extensive measurement of abuse on later delinquency. As we can see in the study, the more extensive the abuse is, the higher the rates are for delinquency. “Of these reports, about one in ten, or 9.7 per 100 children, are substantiated for abuse or neglect perpetrated by a caregiver” (Barboza). This elevated rate of proof is alarming, given previous research showing that children who experience abuse and neglect have an increased risk of poor behavioral outcomes, such as externalizing and internalizing behavior, and are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system
The majority of teens tried as adults are charged with nonviolent offenses. The law states that teens transferred from juvenile facilities to the adult system must be separated by sight and sound from adult inmates, but in many states, there has been a refusal to comply with these laws or that they will agree to this law but will inevitably stall on this progress.This is because the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act allows states to set their own definition of a juvenile as they see fit, and exempts youths being tried as adults. And according to Jessica Leheny, a reporter for the New York Times, nine states set the limit for a juvenile to become an adult at sixteen years of age. No one knows the reason why these states refuse to comply, but Leheny speculates that it would cost more money to accommodate these teens in separate rooms rather than placing them with the rest of the adult inmate population. Because of this, juveniles are more likely to be sexually assaulted by adult inmates.
Teens in these adult systems are at extreme risk for sexual victimization, more than “any other group of incarcerated persons”, according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. And the “Prison Rape Elimination Act” of 2003 claimed that children are more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities, usually within the first forty eight hours of their incarceration. Furthermore, teens in these adult prisons are subject to mental harm and have less psychiatric help services available to them compared to an average juvenile detention center. And with the still harmful effects of solitary confinement, many juveniles are placed in isolation, which can severely harm or even cause mental disorders that have the potential to affect them for the rest of their lives. And tragically according to the JJDPA juveniles are thirty six percent more likely to commit suicide in these prisons.
In addition, there are many laws granting all juveniles the right to education, which apply to juveniles in correctional facilities, however, many teens housed in adult facilities do not have access to any form of education. A 2005 survey of adult facilities by the JJDPA found that forty percent of the jails and prisons had no educational services at all. The “Individuals with Disabilities Act” requires that incarcerated teens with learning disabilities and other mental disorders be granted education that serves individual needs and prepares students for college, employment and independent living. When these kids enter an adult facility they lose more than just their freedom, they lose out on education and mental help that juvenile detention centers provide.
Juvenile facilities are better equipped to help teens who made mistakes and are trying to fix it. Juvenile prisons have begun to use therapy as a way to teach better decision making and behavior. Specific examples that have proven results are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Aggression Replacement Therapy, and Functional Family Therapy. And according to Campaign on Youth Justice, treatment programs for serious and violent young offenders have been shown to reduce recidivism by as much as forty percent. Not only that, but juveniles also have the option of still getting an education in these detention facilities. And according to the CYJ, as well, forty seven percent of the juveniles who take the option of getting an education have a least likely chance of recidivism. With this information, one can see that juveniles are a lot better off in juvenile detention centers than in adult prisons, and have a better chance of not committing the same offence.
To this day, juveniles are being tried as adults and being put into these prisons or worse. In my opinion, this is wrong because, physiologically speaking, a kid does not have the mental capacity as an adult does. In general, juveniles should not be tried as adults because we do not know what situation these teens are in. A judge should first take into account who the individual is as a person, what their home environment is like, and what state is their mental health, then judge the crime they committed. This would allow a fair and just trial for the juvenile in question. I am not suggesting that these teens should not be punished, but they should at least get some leniency, like on their sentencing. An example of a lenient sentencing is to send them to a juvenile detention center or a psychiatric ward, rather than an adult prison. This would allow them to receive help and other services in order to become a better person. We as a society need to acknowledge that in these fragile moments, teens make mistakes and it is our jobs to give them a second chance, to make them into better people. Because in the end kids really are just kids and they are our future.
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