Youth Tried as Adults

Despite the establishment of a separate juvenile justice system over a century ago, youth are routinely charged and prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.  The numbers of youth facing adult prosecution increased substantially in the 1990’s in the wake of a baseless and racist myth that a generation of "super-predators" was on the rise. While crime has steadily decreased since that time, these laws continue to subject youth to criminal conviction and sentencing.

Adolescent Development and The Law

Scientific research shows key developmental differences between youth and adults that impact youth’s decision making, impulse control, and susceptibility to peer pressure. While these differences do not excuse youth from responsibility for their actions, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that youth are less blameworthy than adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana).

Punishing children the same way we punish adults does not advance public safety. Research also shows that as youth mature, they are substantially less likely to re-offend; locking children up for years will extend their incarceration well beyond the time needed for them to be rehabilitated.

Prosecuting Youth as Adults Puts Them At Risk

Many youth in the justice system have experienced or witnessed violence and trauma. Youth in the adult criminal justice system face a higher risk of sexual abuse, physical assault, and suicide. Incarcerating children with adults also denies them access to many essential programs and services, including basic and special education, as well as treatment and counseling services, impeding their chances for healthy development. Education is also closely linked to reducing re-offending; youth’s successful re-entry to their communities is compromised when they are deprived of adequate and appropriate educational opportunities.

Juvenile Law Center opposes the treatment of youth as adults; the juvenile justice system, designed to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, is better suited to meet youth’s needs. When youth face possible involvement in the adult system, we advocate for adequate due process, including ensuring that the decision is made by a judge following a full and proper hearing, and with the opportunity to appeal.

Images: © Richard Ross,

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This resource for attorneys seeking to bolster their appellate and amicus arguments will be updated with some regularity, and all of Juvenile Law Center’s briefs can be found on our Legal Docket.

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