The student newspaper of Strath Haven High School. The Panther Press is first and foremost a reflection of the opinions and interests of the student body. For this reason, we do not publish any anonymous or teacher-written submissions, and we do not discriminate against any ideology or political opinion. While we are bound by school policy (and funding), we will not render any article neutral, although individual points may be edited for obscene or inflammatory content. Finally, the articles published in the Panther Press do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or advisors.

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Nine Year Olds Tried As Adults

Leah Dunbar, '18, Staff Writer

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Yes, you read the title correctly: in just the past few years, hundreds of kids under the age of 18 have been tried as adults on the grounds that their crimes merit punishments beyond the scope of those available for juvenile defendants. Until the twentieth century, the United States accepted age 7 as the cut off for being tried as an adult, believing that, starting at age 7, people had the ability to possess criminal intent. However, beginning in 1899, juvenile courts began to open across the US, focusing on young offenders and steering them away from lives of crime. Around the 1990s there was a sharp increase in juvenile crime, causing many people under 18 years old to be tried as adults. While some people found this to be problematic, as at these ages people do not have fully developed cognitive capabilities, others deemed it necessary to keep the US as safe as possible and to hold individuals who commit crimes accountable. Both of these arguments are wholly logical; the question is what crimes justify being tried as an adult? Furthermore, does sending adolescents to prison have positive effects?

The main argument behind trying adolescents as adults is that they become an adult when they commit an “adult crime.” While it is easy to look through a television screen and say that anyone who has committed a horrendous crime deserves to spend the rest of their life rotting in a prison cell, it is crucial to look beyond the crime when determining sentences. This is especially important when considering juvenile criminals. According to Robert Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, we must look at juvenile criminals in the context of their culpability. He notes that, just as different defendants receive different sentences even if they caused the same harm because they differ in culpability, or blameworthiness, we must also note how prominent immaturity, undeveloped decision-making abilities, impulsiveness, lack of future orientation and susceptibility to negative peer pressure are in adolescents. These factors influence younger individuals’ actions, and in this case, their crimes. In addition, Schwartz finds that “from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic area, the teenage brain is undergoing dramatic changes during adolescence in ways that affect teens’ ability to reason, to weigh consequences for their decisions and to delay gratification long enough to make careful short- and long-term choices.” This further supports the argument that these teens should not be held to the standards that adults are in court, since a large parts of their decision making process are underdeveloped and not under their control.

While the morality behind incarcerating juveniles is shaky, younger defendants are still being put in jail every day. Because of this, it is not only critical to consider the effect that the trying of juveniles as adults has on the teenagers themselves. After conducting a research project on the long-term effects of incarcerating juveniles, Anna Aizer, Associate Professor of Economics at Brown University, and Joseph Doyle, Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management revealed the shocking results of prison on such a young mind. While controlling as many outside factors as possible, Aizer and Doyle found “those incarcerated as a juvenile are 39 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school and are 41 percentage points more likely to have entered adult prison by age 25 compared with other public school students from the same neighborhood.” This shows that not only is the incarceration of juveniles failing to improve their behavior and increase their options for the future, it is actually having a profoundly negative effect on the children. It would be easy to say without having done any previous research that juveniles do not lead a life of criminal activity because of being in prison at a young age but their downfall is instead caused by the atmosphere in which they grew up. However, this study proves that argument to be wholly incorrect. Individuals incarcerated while younger than18 have a 41% greater chance of returning to jail than their neighbors, who can be assumed to have grown up in similar circumstances. This is statistically outstanding. While the neighborhood and environment a child is raised in may have a large impact on their actions, prison has a far greater effect. So, is it really worth sending so many children to prison? Despite these studies, many people continue to believe that trying juveniles as adults in certain situations is the right thing to do. One has to wonder why in the last 25 years the US has gone from only allowing 18 year olds and older to be tried as adults to letting children as young as 9 years olds be tried as adults. Will still younger children be next? Is the judicial system going to increase the number of juveniles in adult prisons? Furthermore, as each incarcerated juvenile costs an average of $88,000 per year, is it really worth having the highest number of incarcerated juveniles in the world? While I would say no, perhaps there is a major argument or research study that shows the reasoning behind it that has been overlooked. One would think that there must be one, since we continue to send hundreds of teenagers and children into adult prisons every year.

The student newspaper of Strath Haven High School. The Panther Press is first and foremost a reflection of the opinions and interests of the student body. For this reason, we do not publish any anonymous or teacher-written submissions, and we do not discriminate against any ideology or political opinion. While we are bound by school policy (and funding), we will not render any article neutral, although individual points may be edited for obscene or inflammatory content. Finally, the articles published in the Panther Press do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or advisors.
Nine Year Olds Tried As Adults