- Published: September 19, 2012
- Written by Robert T. Brockman II
The justice system in the United States allows for criminals under the age of majority to be prosecuted in a separate juvenile court, one which typically hands down sentences that are less severe than the normal court system and are more geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. In recent decades, widespread exceptions have been made for "juvenile delinquents" who are involved in particularly serious crimes, such as murder, who are then transferred to the normal criminal court system. Although my initial intuition was that such exceptions for severe crimes made little sense, after further consideration I now believe that sending violent youth to the adult court system is consistent with justice.
When assessing whether an aspect of a justice system makes sense, one must first come to an agreement on the overall purpose of such a system. I propose that the justice system should focus on two objectives: restitution, mitigating the past effects on victims by crimes already committed, and crime prevention, minimizing the harm inflicted on society in the future. Crime prevention strategies basically involve either behavior modification, incapacitation, or deterrence. Behavior modification focuses on decreasing the desire of the criminal to commit crimes or improving their ability to resist criminal impulses and to understand the consequences of their actions. Incapacitation removes the criminal's physical ability to commit crimes, typically by locking him up or killing him. Deterrence encourages other rational actors not to commit crimes, usually by making a messy example of offenders. An efficient justice system will weigh the trade-offs of all of these options.
The juvenile justice framework seems to have been structured around the notion that young people are more malleable and plastic than "mature" people. Thus, behavior modification would be more likely to be effective at decreasing recidivism, obviating the need for expensive jail or harsh execution to prevent future crimes. Recent studies showing that teenagers' brains are not fully matured, especially in those areas of the brain involved in planning and impulse control. Defense lawyers have attempted to use these studies to demonstrate that teenagers are not responsible for their actions in the same way as adults in an attempt to obtain lighter sentences; however, as Jay Aronson points out, if this were generally true, "Marauding youths would be killing each other, their teachers, their elders, and their parents—and civilization as we know it would probably come to an end." However, neurological evidence of immaturity is quite consistent with our intuition that young people are easier to educate and shape and thus supports the use of counseling and psychiatry, rather than prison, for most young offenders.
Serious offenses such as murder, however, bring principles of justice other than behavior modification into play. With minor offenses, the accused can be induced to compensate victims as part of their sentence and rehabilitation. Thus, the consequences of repeat offenses are not terribly high, especially compared to the expense of imprisonment. Serious bodily injury, rape, or murder create a situation where the victim can never be fully "paid back," thus the threat posed by recidivism is very great. Incapacitation in the form of long jail terms, though expensive, now becomes a better bet for society than efforts at rehabilitation. Failure to imprison or execute teens who kill also compromises deterrence, which is especially dangerous considering the offender's peer group is likely to consist of young people. Teens' long-term faith in the justice system is sure to be undermined by knowing that their peer "got away with murder" by "escaping" prison through the juvenile court system.
 “Neuroscience and Juvenile Justice,” Dr. Jay Aronson, Akron Law Review, 2009, 42: 917-930. http://www.uakron.edu/law/lawreview/v42/docs/Aronson.pdf
Dr. Aronson also gives details and references regarding frontal lobe maturation in teens.