Shifting Sands: Today’s Juveniles Less Likely To Be Charged As Adults

Are you the parent of a teen facing serious charges of wrongdoing? Has your family law attorney told you that there is a possibility your teen will be charged as an adult rather than a juvenile? If so, it is important to understand the current landscape of juvenile law in this area. The current thinking of many states is that there is more financial and rehabilitative success in returning these teens to juvenile court. Where does your state fall on this issue?

Determining where to file charges

First, some clarification on the process that occurs a juvenile is charged with a serious crime. There are three ways in which a teen can be referred to criminal (adult) court:

  1. Judicial waiver. The juvenile court judge decides the case is more appropriate for criminal court.

  2. Direct file. The prosecutor decides whether to file the case in juvenile or criminal court. This is also called concurrent jurisdiction.

  3. Statutory exclusion. State law requires a juvenile be tried in criminal court based on such factors as the nature of the charges, age of the teen or the youth's prior record.

In the years 1990-2010, the country sent many juveniles to criminal courts because juvenile crime rates were so high. Officials were hopeful that stiff consequences would deter crime. Currently, about 10% of minors in long-term correctional placements have been tried and sentenced as adults.

However, since 2005 the nation has shifted its views on this practice; since then, 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws restricting the prosecution and sentencing of juveniles as adults. Following that trend, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled against mandatory life sentences without parole for any crimes other than murder. In 2012, it decided no juvenile could face a mandatory life sentence.

Damaged kids

There are a few reasons why experts feel children should not be charged as adults.

  • Cost. Keeping teens in prison is expensive--about $31,000 per year.

  • Rehabilitative possibilities. Teens are easier to rehabilitate than adults given the fact that their brains and personalities are still developing. That pliability, however, can go the other direction, as youth are more likely to harden into future offenders if sentenced to prisons. In fact, juveniles are 35% more likely to reoffend if they are convicted as adults.

  • Mental health. Young people forced into prison settings can develop severe mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse quickly blossom in young people who are housed with hardened offenders and see no hope of rehabilitation. Further, youths held in solitary confinement face a host of emotional difficulties, such as the potential for psychosis, self-harm and the aggravation of existing behavioral problems. The practice so incenses the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists that it called for a ban on the practice altogether.

What about your state?

What are the laws in your state as the sands shift in the landscape of juvenile justice? Your family law attorney can explain to you how the specifics of your teen's case will affect the charges filed and the jurisdiction chosen for trial. Depending on the situation, your attorney may be able to meet with the judge or prosecutor to argue why sending your child's case to criminal court would adversely affect his/her mental health or potential for rehabilitation.

Is your teen already being treated for a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis? You may be able to present the argument that a transition to criminal court and placement in prison could exacerbate the condition to the detriment of his/her health.

Standing alongside your child through the juvenile justice process is challenging and stressful. However, if your attorney can keep the case in juvenile court, you can be assured that treatment and rehabilitation are possible.