Recently in the news, two twelve year old girls have been accused of stabbing their twelve year old friend, inspired by a fictional internet character called Slender Man. This story made national news not because the accused and victim were so young, such violence is unfortunately not terribly uncommon in this country, but because the accused will very likely be charged as adults. I do not levy opinions about cases and legal systems (Wisconsin) that I am unfamiliar with, but the public’s skeptical and downright disgust from some individuals about this case shows that our society, and by extension our legal system, see and treat the criminal acts of children differently than that of adults. This article will briefly outline why this author thinks that is.
Juvenile defendants are just that, juveniles. They are kids. They go to school (most of them). They have homework. They worry about romantic relationships that are born, live, and die on social media. Scores of societal norms and laws, from the rights of parents to dictate the actions of their children to prohibitions restricting what substances children are allowed to consume, are based on the idea that juveniles are inherently unable to make informed and wise decisions on their own behalf. This is why we treat them differently in the criminal justice system. While an adult is assumed to appreciate the consequences (to themselves and others) of their actions, children have not been afforded the life experience and instruction to fully appreciate consequences the way adults do, or at least that is the assumption.
Children can commit almost any crime an adult can, the exception being crimes that require one to be an adult in order to satisfy the elements of the crime (statutory rape for example), but some crimes are unique to juveniles. These crimes are called status offenses. Examples of status offenses would be truancy, underage intoxication, disorderly child, or running away. What truly makes these offenses unique is that their clear motivation is not to protect the public, but more to actually protect the children engaging in the prohibited activity. For that reason, the motivations in punishment are significantly different.
Unlike adult criminal law which focuses primarily on deterring criminal activity and punishment of the convicted, juvenile proceedings have some different motivations. By statute, the purpose of Ohio juvenile proceedings are “for the care, protection, and mental and physical development of children subject to this chapter, protect the public interest and safety, hold the offender accountable for the offender’s actions, restore the victim, and rehabilitate the offender”[ORC 2152(A)]. While these motivations appear similar to those for adult criminal law, it is apparent that the primary purpose of juvenile law is not to punish, but to rehabilitate. The processes are primarily meant to craft young people to become productive adults, not to lock them away from the world. Juvenile detainees are usually detained to learn that their actions have consequences, not to keep a violent criminal off the streets. Probation requirements are also usually far more extensive compared to probation requirements of adults, more frequently involving counselling, educational goals, and personal development.
Juvenile criminal proceedings differ greatly in character from adult criminal law. The defendants are different, the crimes are different, and the motivations in sentencing are different. At the same time, society and our legal system have outlined circumstances when it is appropriate to adjudicate a child’s criminal offense as an adult, but that line is at best blurry, and sometimes can appear downright arbitrary. This author does not have an answer to where the line between juvenile and adult criminal conduct should be drawn, but I hope this article raised at least a few good questions.