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Should Children Who Commit Violent Crimes Be Tried as Adults?
Murder, rape, and aggravated assault are violent crimes that the general public deems heinous and unforgivable. Many want to see murderers and rapists face the death penalty or spend the rest of their life in prison. While this is a common reaction from the public, sentiments toward violent crimes become blurred when the guilty parties are children. On one side, some agree with treating child criminals as adult offenders. Alternatively, some argue that child criminals are not culpable for their actions and should not receive the same consequences as adults. This persuasive essay contends that child criminals should not be tried for violent crimes as the current juvenile justice system promotes recidivism instead of rehabilitation.
The Juvenile Justice System
The current juvenile justice system leans towards the side of not treating children as normal criminals. Most violent crime cases involving children lead to guilty parties receiving short to no jail time (Grench, 2019). Even when a court decides to take in a child criminal, they are likely to enter rehabilitation centers where they would receive psychological treatment and other necessary help. This approach is because of children’s lack of culpability for their actions, as well as the potential negative effects of criminal trials and jail time on children. According to Scott (2019), 22 out of 28 European Union countries have abolished child life imprisonment, indicating that many countries have recognized the most effective way to address juvenile violent crimes. Still, this does not mean that children guilty of violent crimes should face no consequences for their actions. As mentioned, child criminals will receive proper treatment in rehabilitation centers and other juvenile facilities instead of spending years in jail.
The Youth’s Underdeveloped Brain
Children’s lack of culpability is due to their underdeveloped brains. Various studies have shown that children’s decision-making, impulse control, and other psychosocial skills are underdeveloped (Grench, 2019; Mercer 2020). It is common knowledge that children are at a developing stage of their life and their environment plays a significant role in their growth. They may base their decisions on tv shows they watch, books they read, or things they see at home. They may, without intent, inflict harm on others since they perceive the action as normal and acceptable. Furthermore, with poor impulse control, they are more inclined to act without considering consequences which can lead to violent crimes.
For instance, a child who is friends with a mentally disturbed individual is likely to develop behaviors identical to the latter. This is due to a child’s lack of an established identity and susceptibility toward peer pressure (Mercer, 2020). In the novel Killing Mr. Griffin , the author explored this concept as she introduced a group of young individuals to a psychopathic teen who persuaded them into murdering and concealing the crime. The author, in an interview, explained that peer pressure is one of the causes of behavioral problems in the youth (Lyga, n.d.). This, along with their other undeveloped psychosocial skills, can cause them to commit violent crimes without the intent to harm. From a different perspective, it also makes child criminals victims since their actions can be products of modern media and societal pressure.
Abuse in Juvenile Rehabilitation Centers
While the juvenile justice system does not put most children behind bars, they place them in facilities where they would receive psychological treatment. Since child criminals are still at a developing stage, rehabilitation can be effective in reforming their behaviors and allowing them to re-enter society despite their crimes. However, many juvenile rehabilitation centers and other facilities tend to expose children to physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Various surveys and reports showed thousands of formal abuse claims within these facilities and many juvenile delinquents develop post-traumatic stress disorder while in the facilities (Farkas, 2021). The concerning evidence illustrates that even when the system aims to rehabilitate children, the centers and personnel may still perceive them as criminals and treat them as such. So if courts tried and prosecuted child criminals the same as adults, they would become victims of abuse due to their incapability to defend themselves mentally and physically.
It is important to note that these situations are factual and not hypothetical. Some juveniles go to adult prisons and become victims of abuse. For instance, a 2005 study showed that 21% of inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults had underaged victims despite the youth being only 1% of the prison population (cited in Farkas, 2021). This meant that putting children and other young criminals in adult prisons exposes them to potential rape and other abuses, which can affect their mental health and growth. While some may argue that children and young offenders should only go to juvenile centers, there is still potential for abuse in these facilities. As mentioned earlier, children can become abuse victims of facility personnel and other young inmates. So without a proper structure within the facilities, children are likely to become victims, whether in adult prisons or juvenile centers.
Increased recidivism is another problem concerning the juvenile justice system. Since children and other young criminals experience abuse and trauma within holding facilities, they develop behavioral problems, mostly from institutionalization, that can increase the chance of recidivism (Farkas, 2021). Instead of learning proper social behavior and developing social skills, children acquire more mental health problems that would prevent them from re-entering society effectively. For instance, a child who experienced sexual abuse for two years in a rehabilitation facility may bring behavioral problems upon re-entry into society. They may go back to their family and attempt to imitate their experiences, leading them to commit violent crimes against their siblings or other family members.
There is also the problem of social stigma concerning youth with criminal records, especially those who commit murders, rape, and assaults. According to Farkas (2021), children lose potential employment opportunities when they enter rehabilitation centers and other holding facilities. Some employers will be reluctant to employ them due to possible criminal behavior. This stigma is regardless of age during the crime. So even if an individual committed a violent crime when they were five years old and spent time in a rehabilitation facility, they will still face stigma. Furthermore, spending two or more years in a facility means that a child will miss traditional education which can affect various aspects of their development. This can also mean they will lack the skills and knowledge that can make them effective members of society. As the juvenile system incarcerates children, they limit the potential of individuals who committed violent crimes during a stage when they are incapable of decision-making and reason.
The juvenile justice system fails to rehabilitate child criminals and instead increases the risk of recidivism. Children and other young criminals experience inhumane treatment within the facilities that are supposed to help them address mental and behavioral problems. Juvenile rehabilitation facilities become places where the young experience physical, mental, and sexual abuse; worsening their problematic development and promoting future criminal tendencies. For children who survive these facilities or are lucky to enter a center that treats inmates humanely, they face a social stigma that prevents them from effectively re-entering society. Thus, their limited opportunities can force them to commit crimes as society continues to reject them. Children guilty of violent crimes should not be tried as adults since they lack the capacity for accountability and instead receive psychological treatment outside of holding facilities, away from other disturbed children and potential abusers.
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Grench, E. (2019). What Happens When A Kid Is Charged With A Felony Murder? The City. Available at https://www.thecity.nyc/2019/12/17/21210636/what-happens-when-a-kid-is-charged-with-a-felony-murder. Accessed: September 22, 2022.
Farkas, A. (2021). The Myth of Rehabilitation: How to Address Juvenile Justice System’s Contributions to Recidivism. Seton Hall University. Available at https://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2182&context=student_scholarship. Accessed: September 22, 2022.
Fondren, P. Tessa Majors Murder: Teenager Sentenced to 14 Years To Life. New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/nyregion/tessa-majors-murder-teen-sentenced.html#:~:text=The%20teenager%2C%20Rashaun%20Weaver%2C%2016,four%20times%20in%20the%20chest . Accessed: September 22, 2022.
Lyga, B. (n.d.). Q&A With The Author: Killing Mr. Griffin. web.archive.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20161221162226/http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_assets/busresources/Duncan_Interview_3.pdf. Accessed: September 25, 2022.
Mercer, T. (2020). Young Adult Men in Prison: The Case for a Dedicated Approach. Penal Reform International. Available at https://www.penalreform.org/blog/young-adult-men-in-prison-the-case-for/#_ftn5 . Accessed: September 22, 2022.
Scott, D. (2019). Why We Should Abolish Imprisonment for Children and Young People. Open Learn. Available at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/criminology/why-we-should-abolish-imprisonment-children-and-young-people. Accessed: September 22, 2022.
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