When young people commit crimes, instead of calling them criminals we use the somewhat more polite term “delinquent.” Young people are treated very differently by the criminal justice system. There are special courts for lawbreakers under the age of 18, and these courts operate under very different rules than the general adult courts.
Imagine a child of five years of age who takes a candy bar from a convenience store. The storeowner would never think to have the child arrested for theft: we all assume the child does not fully understand his/her actions, and the most effective response would be a lecture from a parent or guardian about what stealing is. We assume that such a child is still learning basic moral lessons.
At what age should a person be responsible for their actions in the eyes of the law? Or, to put it another way: at what age is a person unlikely to change their behavior simply because of a stern lecture from an authority figure? In the United States and in most other countries, the age of legal adulthood is 18, though in certain cases a younger teen will be tried in an adult court.
In most states, children younger than age 7 are not eligible for juvenile court, and parents or guardians are expected to take responsibility for the children’s actions instead. Juvenile courts can therefore be seen as a transitional step, in which a young person is only partially responsible for their actions.
In the United States, juvenile courts are less formal than adult courts. Correctional officials have more discretion in deciding what to do with a youth offender. For example, the court may decide to punish a crime with nothing more than a stern lecture. A juvenile offender may also be required to do community service, attend counseling, or repay the victim for damages instead of serving a jail sentence. The court takes into consideration the juvenile’s social and family background in determining what would be best for him/her.
Juvenile courts tend to focus more on rehabilitation than adult courts, under the assumption that a teenager is more likely than an adult criminal to change their behavior.
The legal advice website Nolo says that:
Roughly half of all juvenile arrests are made for theft, simple assault, drug abuse, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In an average year, only about 3 percent of cases heard in juvenile court involved violent offenses like robbery, rape, murder, and aggravated assault.
Historically, the vast majority of juvenile court cases have involved male offenders. But the number of girls entering the juvenile justice system has been on the rise in recent years–in an average year, girls accounted for 27 percent of all juveniles facing proceedings in juvenile courts in the U.S.
Studies of the developmental pathways of criminal behavior in young people show distinct patterns. Typically, a youth’s criminal career begins with a small act of violence, and builds up to increasingly more serious offenses. According to the US Surgeon General’s 2001 report on youth violence, the vast majority of delinquent careers begin after puberty, peak at age 16 and end before age 20. Young people who commit their first crimes before puberty tend to have longer and more violent criminal careers.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you think the rationale for juvenile courts makes sense, that people below a certain age should be treated more leniently when they commit crimes?
Do you think juvenile courts should be more like adult courts, or the other way around?
Have you personally observed juvenile courts firsthand? In your experience, do juvenile correctional officers seem to have young offenders’ best interests at heart?
People younger than 18 are treated very differently by the criminal justice system, as we expect young people to be more likely to change their behavior.
The juvenile justice system is more informal and is usually considered more lenient. Police and courts have more discretion in how to handle a juvenile case.
In theory, a young child who commits a crime is not categorically different from an adult criminal. The child is simply more likely to learn and less aware of their actions. But the adult is also able to learn, to some extent, and perhaps does not fully understand what they are doing.