This question was explored recently in Wisconsin and Michigan, as courts have considered whether it is constitutional to sentence defendants to life without parole for crimes committed in their youths.
According to the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, in almost half the states across the country, children can be prosecuted and tried in adult court. Many of the laws passed were passed during a time when juvenile crime spiked in the 1980s and 1990s.
In Kentucky, some state officials are now considering whether the state should take a more lenient approach to dealing with youthful offenders, according to a Lexington Herlad-Leader article.
In Pennsylvania, there is no lower limit for the age someone can be charged as an adult with criminal homicide. If convicted, children as young as 12 can faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In the USA, states’ juvenile transfer laws vary with age requirements, crime classifications, etc. See Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency? [PDF] for general discussion. If a juvenile’s case is transferred to trial and sentencing in an adult court, the juvenile may move for decertification.
A decertification hearing is the process in which a judge is asked to move the case from the adult criminal system to the juvenile system. The consequences on whether the case will be tried in the juvenile system or adult courts are great, specifically homicide cases involving children tried in juvenile courts benefit from sealed records and less severe sentences.
Historical Moments in Juvenile Law:
In 2005, Roper v. Simmons, by a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.
In 2010, Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime. The Court reasoned that juveniles are less able to control their behavior and thus less culpable for their crimes.
For more information see:
Boy, 12, faces grown up murder charges – Stephanie Chen|CNN (2/10/10) and Pennsylvania boy, 12, to be charged as adult in death of his father’s pregnant fiancée (Pennlive.com |By The Associated Press The Associated Press |3/29/10)
Kentucky Weighs Taking Softer Approach to Juvenile Crime By Nathan Koppel (8/18/11)
Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency? [PDF] (Dept of Justice |Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention | June 2010) (Provides overview of national transfer laws (legislative/ automatic, judicial-discretionary, and prosecutorial-discretionary), general and specific deterrence, recidivism. The bulletin draws a conclusion that the practice of transferring juveniles for trial and sentencing in adult criminal courts has produced the unintended effect of increasing recidivism, especially among violent offenders, and thereby promoting a criminal life style.)
Prosecuting Juveniles in Adult Court: An Assessment of Trends and Consequences [PDF] (The Sentencing Project |By Malcolm C. Young and Jenni Gainsborough | January 2000) (Provides information on the changes in the juvenile justice system and concludes transfer laws do nothing to increase public safety and are unjust and harmful to children. This paper makes brief mentioning of recidivism studies involving NJ, NY and PA juvenile offenders.)
Sentencing Law and Policy: “The Impact of Juvenile Transfer Laws on Juvenile Crime (June 17, 2010). Ohio State Law professor Douglas Berman, highlights a forthcoming law-review article suggesting that juveniles should not necessarily be treated with kid gloves.
Juvenile Criminal Responsibility: Can Malice Supply the Want of Years? (August 12, 2011). George Mason Law professor Craig Lerner posits: “what certain crimes reveal is that that there are violent juvenile offenders – fortunately rare – who are as least as mature and culpable as the typical adult violent offender. . .The [Supreme] Court’s central claim about the relative culpability of adult and juvenile offenders originates from a failure to confront inconvenient facts.”