Trial as an adult

trial in which a minor defendant is treated as an adult

Encyclopedia from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Trial as an adult is a situation in which a juvenile offender is tried as if they were an adult, whereby they may receive a longer or more serious sentence than would otherwise be possible if they were charged as a juvenile.

Where specific protections exist for juvenile offenders (such as suppression of an offender's name or picture or a closed courtroom where the proceedings are not made public), these protections may be waived.

United States

The first juvenile court in the United States was established in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois.[1] Before this time, it was widely held that children 7 years old and older were capable of criminal intent and were therefore punished as adults.[2] These juvenile courts focused on the offenders instead of the offenses and worked toward a goal of rehabilitation. These courts also arose from a growing belief that instead of being "miniature adults", children and adolescents possess moral and cognitive capabilities that are not quite fully developed.[2]

After a dramatic increase in violent juvenile offenses in the 1980s and 1990s,[3] a greater number of juveniles were transferred from juvenile court to criminal court for their crimes. This process is controversial, due to concerns about the difference between the cognitive and moral capabilities of juveniles vs. adults and the ease with which juvenile cases can be transferred. Supporters of the abolition of juvenile court, however, argue that prosecuting juvenile offenders in criminal court offers better protection to society and holds juveniles responsible for their actions.

Criminal court vs. juvenile court

There are several differences between juvenile court and criminal court in the United States. One of the most significant differences is the intent of the two systems; the focus of the juvenile justice system is on rehabilitation and future reintegration, while the goal of the criminal justice system is punishment and deterrence of future crime. In juvenile court rulings, decisions often take psychosocial factors into account along with current offense severity and the youth's offense history. In contrast, in criminal proceedings, the severity of the offense and criminal history weigh most heavily in sentencing outcome. Upon release, those who pass through the juvenile justice system receive parole-like surveillance along with reintegration programs, reflecting the belief that juvenile behavior can be changed. Those released from prison receive surveillance which serves to monitor and report illegal behavior.[2]

Transfer to criminal court

During the 1980s and 1990s murders by juveniles increased dramatically, which resulted in new legislation that allowed for more juveniles and younger juveniles to be transferred to criminal court.[3] These changes, many of which took place between 1992 and 1995, included lowering the age of judicial transfer, adding to the list of transferable offenses, and creating automatic transfer laws for certain ages and offenses.[4] In 1994, it was found that the United States transferred roughly 13,000 juveniles to adult courts a year, with approximately 36% of those transfers involving youth who committed violent offenses.[5]

There are four main processes by which juvenile defendants can be transferred to criminal court[3][4]

  1. Judicial Waiver: Juvenile court judges have the ability to transfer juveniles to criminal court, usually takes into account age and severity of offense
  2. Prosecutorial Discretion: Prosecutors have the authority to file cases in juvenile court or criminal court jurisdiction
  3. Statutory Exclusion: State laws that require certain categories of juvenile offenders to appear in criminal court based on age or type of offense
  4. "Once an adult, always an adult" or "Once waived/always waived": State laws that require juveniles to be tried in criminal court if any previous crimes were seen in criminal court

Twenty-three states have no minimum age in at least one judicial waiver or statutory exclusion provision allowing for the transfer of juveniles to adult court. In states where a minimum age is specified for all transfer provisions, age 14 is the most common minimum age.[6]


In 2003, 2.2 million arrests were made involving individuals under 18, with the most serious offenses most frequently involving larceny-theft, drug-abuse violations, and disorderly conduct.[6] According to 1998 statistics from the Bureau of Justice,[7] which looked at 7,100 transferred juveniles charged with felonies within 40 of the nation's largest urban counties, violent felony offenses made up 63.5% of the charges made against juvenile defendants in criminal court. Other offenses included property offenses (17.7%), drug offenses (15.1%) and public-disorder offenses (3.5%). Of this sample of juveniles, 23% were transferred to criminal court by judicial waiver, 34% by prosecutorial discretion, and 41.6% by statutory exclusion. Within this sample of juveniles, 96% percent were male. A majority of the juvenile defendants were African American (62%). The rest of the sample was made up of Caucasian (20%), Latino (16%) and other (2%). At time of arrest almost 40% of the juveniles were age 17, with 30.7% ages 16–17, 19.2% ages 15–16, 6.8% ages 14–15, and 0.3% less than 14 years of age.

In a study that looked at 1,829 youths, from ten to 17 years of age, it was found that females, non-Hispanic whites, and younger juveniles were less likely to be tried in criminal court than males, African Americans, Hispanics, and older youths. Among the juveniles transferred to criminal court, 68% had one psychiatric disorder and 43% had two or more psychiatric disorders. When the juveniles who were sentenced in criminal court were compared to the juveniles sentenced in juvenile court, those youth who were sentenced to adult prison had greater odds of having a disruptive behavior disorder, a substance abuse disorder, or affective and anxiety disorders.[8]

An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the United States.[9]


Advocates for the abolition of juvenile court

Critics of the juvenile court argue that the definitions of childhood and adolescence that were used to establish the first juvenile courts in America are no longer equivalent to the definitions of childhood and adolescence today. These critics state that the boundary between juvenile and adult is no longer as clear, as children appear to grow up faster, with more exposure to adult ideas, and as adults more often engage in juvenile behaviors and activities.[10][11]

It is also argued[11] that many juvenile jurisdictions are no longer taking a rehabilitative approach to juvenile delinquents, and are instead becoming more and more punitive,[11] and that because of some of the modifications within the juvenile justice system (e.g. required to waive access to a jury of peers[4]) these defendants are losing out on chances for better advocacy[10] and they are not receiving all their rights as a trial defendant.

Other critical beliefs of the juvenile justice system are that the system allows for youth to escape the consequences of their actions. This then leads to further predation of society. It is also believed that children/adolescents understand the implications of violent behavior, and because of this, deserve a more complete punishment.

Competence of juveniles as trial defendants

There is much controversy surrounding the idea of trying and sentencing juveniles as adults in criminal court. This debate centers around the cognitive and moral capacities of juveniles.

There have been numerous attempts to conceptualize and organize the abilities needed to be deemed a competent defendant in criminal court. Competency can be defined as the ability to assist counsel and the ability to engage in proficient reasoning and judgment-making.[12] To assist counsel, a defendant must be able to understand trial procedures, understand the charges against him or her, understand his or her rights in court, and must be able to engage in beneficial communication with his or her counsel. To demonstrate proficient reasoning and judgment in court-related matters, a defendant must understand that counsel will provide insight and aid, know when it is beneficial to waive certain rights, and comprehend repercussions of certain options within court proceedings.[13]

General capabilities

It has been found that youths younger than 13 are lacking many of the abilities that older adolescent and adult defendants possess; namely a familiarity with court proceedings, a robust understanding of rights, a comprehension that defense attorneys are on the side of the defendant, and an ability to communicate effectively with counsel.[13]

A 2003 study by Grisso et al.[14] suggested that among a sample of 1,393 community youths (ages 11–17) and young adults (ages 18–24) and detained youth and young adults, that those aged 15 and younger are unable to perform as well as older adolescent and young adults as trial defendants. It was found in this study that

approximately one third of 11- to 13-year-olds and approximately one fifth of 14 to 15 year olds are as impaired in capacities relevant to adjudicative competence as are seriously mentally ill adults who would likely be considered incompetent to stand trial.

A study that looked exclusively at juveniles 16–17 years old who were directly filed to criminal court (i.e. transferred by prosecutorial discretion) found no significant differences in competence between these youth and older criminal defendants.[15]

Regarding juveniles' knowledge about criminal court, it has been found that most adolescent offenders are ignorant of the transfer laws that may force them to be tried and sentenced as an adult, and it is suggested that a previous knowledge of these laws might have deterred them from committing their crime.[16]

It has been shown that most mid-to-late adolescents are close to adults in cognitive abilities; however, they are less likely to use their abilities because of several reasons. First, juveniles have less experience in life. They are less likely to perceive risks and less likely to contemplate how present actions might affect their future situations.[17][18] The teenage environment also poses several risks to vulnerable individuals. These at-risk adolescents are more often subjected to influences from other troublemaking youth, and opposing these influences has the possibility of resulting in poor outcomes, such as being rejected, suffering ridicule or being physically accosted.[19] Adolescents are also less independent than adults in the decision-making process[18] which could lead to more conforming behavior.[20]

Younger adolescents are also more likely than adults and older adolescents to display compliance behavior with authority figures (e.g. make a plea agreement).[14]

When evaluating a person's maturity of judgment, his responsibility (i.e. ability to act independently and take care of one's self), temperance (i.e. to avoid engaging in impulsive/extreme decision making), and perspective (i.e. the ability to assess a situation from different angles) are measured.[21] It has been found that adolescents are less mature than college students, young adults and adults on the responsibility and perspective factors, with no difference between delinquent and non-delinquent youth.[22] Further, maturity of judgment is a better predictor of total delinquency than age, gender, race, education level, socioeconomic status (SES), and anti-social decision making.[22]

In the cases where juveniles have been deemed incompetent to stand trial, it has been found that these juveniles differ significantly from juveniles deemed competent. Incompetent juveniles are significantly younger than their counterpart competent juveniles, they are more likely to be wards of the state, more likely to be receiving special education services, and more likely to have suffered previous abuse.[23]

Understanding rights

It has been found that juveniles' understanding and appreciation of their Miranda Rights is significantly impaired among those adolescents aged 11–15,[24][25][26] with age and IQ being the best predictors of Miranda comprehension.[27] Many adolescent defendants find that Miranda vocabulary and reading levels exceed their understanding,[28] and when studying specific components of Miranda Rights, there are several ideas that juveniles find difficult to recognize. For example, 44% of juveniles think that waiting for the police to ask questions is the same as the right to remain silent and 61% of juveniles believe that one must talk in court. These beliefs show a lack of juveniles' understanding of one's right against self-incrimination. Further, 39% of juveniles think that if one pleads guilty, one still has the ability to try to prove his innocence.[29] Defendants aged 15 and younger are also more likely than older defendants to waive the right to an attorney and to confess during police interrogations.[30] Last, juveniles often misunderstand that they have the right to an attorney before and during a police interrogation, and erroneously believe that attorneys only serve innocent defendants.[27]

Attorney-client relationship

Juveniles' appreciation and understanding of attorney-client privileges are also lacking. When comparing juveniles and adults, juveniles are much more likely to refuse to talk to an attorney, even though it is the attorney's duty to help. When juveniles are asked if they trust their attorney, only 6.2% of juveniles related positively to disclosing information to their attorney.[31] Further, juvenile male defendants and juvenile defendants from ethnic minority groups are less likely to trust their attorney or to disclose information about the case to their attorney than female and Caucasian defendants.[30]

Jurors' perception of juvenile defendants

Researchers have found that jurors believe previously abused or intellectually disabled defendants are less receptive to rehabilitation, and that disabled juveniles should be held at less fault than non-disabled juveniles for crimes committed. In a 2009 mock jury study, when looking at a case of a previously maltreated juvenile charged with murder, the juvenile defendant was held at less fault by the jury when she was accused of killing her abuser.[32]

Public opinion of juveniles in criminal court

There are several variables that have an effect on public willingness to transfer juvenile offenders to criminal court. The offender's age and level of offense (ex. use of a weapon) both influence public opinion. The older an offender is and the more serious his crime, the more likely the public is willing to transfer the offender. Neither criminal history nor victim information has been found to influence public willingness to transfer. African-Americans are also more likely than any other race to be targeted for transfer to criminal court.[33]

Another study that looked at public attitudes toward transferring juveniles to adult court found that the seriousness of the crime is the most important factor in public attitudes shifting toward approval of transfer. The two other most important factors include age of offender and the offender's criminal history. However, seriousness of offense and age of offender outweigh whether the juvenile is a 1st time or a repeat offender in attitudes toward transfer. Transferring from juvenile to criminal can make the matter worse and can cause more psychological damage from the isolation and the oppressed feelings of not being able to be redeemed.[34]

Outcomes of juveniles prosecuted in criminal courts

Although the sanctions are more serious in this kind of case than if the juvenile was tried as a child, certain allowances are still made due to the fact the offender is a minor. These include a juvenile offender not being forced to serve time in an adult prison, or with adult prisoners. Extreme sanctions such as the death penalty are generally not handed down to minors.

Short-term consequences

In 1989, researchers found that juveniles housed in adult facilities are

  • 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than youth held in juvenile detention centers[35]
  • 2 times more likely to be beaten by staff than youth held in juvenile detention centers[35]
  • 4.6 times more likely to commit suicide than the general adolescent population[36]
  • 7.7 times more likely to commit suicide than adolescents in juvenile detention centers[36]

Additionally, juveniles who witness violence during incarceration, which is more likely in adult facilities, are less likely to be deterred from future crime.[16]

Youth convicted as adults are at a greater risk of assault and death in adult jails and prisons.[37]

Long-term consequences

Juveniles whose cases were seen in criminal court were more likely to reoffend and to reoffend sooner than matched samples of juveniles whose cases were seen in juvenile court.[38][39] For example, juveniles tried and convicted as adults were found to be 32% more likely to commit another crime in the future than juveniles tried and adjudicated delinquent for similar crimes in the juvenile justice system.[40]

Executions of juveniles

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 22 offenders have been executed in the United States for crimes committed during adolescence.[6][41] However, in 2005 the juvenile death penalty was abolished, and cited as cruel and unusual punishment following the ruling of the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons.[17]

Since 1990, only nine countries have executed offenders aged under 18 years at the time of their crime. These are the People's Republic of China (PRC), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United States and Yemen.[42]

England and Wales

Juveniles are generally tried in a youth court. If a juvenile is charged with an offence that was committed alongside an adult, then both offenders will be tried in an adult magistrates' court, except if it is necessary in the interests of justice that they both be tried in Crown Court.[43]

Juveniles may also be tried as adults in Crown Court for serious offences such as homicide, certain firearms offences, and grave crimes[44] (including sexual assault and child sex offences). Unlike in the Youth Court, trials are open to the public. Media name suppression can be waived at the discretion of the judge, but the young person has no authority in law to insist his/her own name be released.


Defendants aged 14–17 (juveniles "Jugendliche") and 18-20 ("Heranwachsende") will be tried in a youth court (§ 3 Jugendgerichtsgesetz), and there is no concept of trial as an adult for juveniles.

Defendants aged 18–20 will be tried as juveniles but in public proceedings, and sentenced as either juveniles or adults according to their maturity and the kind of offense, its circumstances or motivations (§ 105 JGG).

The court will involve the Jugendamt which will usually assess the defendants level of maturity (non-binding to the court), be present during trial, and evaluate the need of Jugendamt interventions.

Juveniles cannot be put in prison for less than 6 months nor for more than 10 years. However, there is a movement to allow the indefinite detention of "very dangerous young criminals" after they have served their prison sentences, as it is already allowed for adult prisoners.[45]

See also


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  3. ^ a b c Young, M. C., & Gainsborough, J. (2000). Prosecuting juveniles in adult court: An assessment of trends and consequences.
  4. ^ a b c Torbet, P., Gable, R., Hurst, H., Montgomery, I., Szymanski, L., & Thomas, D. (1996). State responses to serious and violent juvenile crime. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  5. ^ Ruddell, R., Mays, G. L., & Giever, D. M. (1998). "TRANSFERRING JUVENILES TO ADULT COURTS. Recent trends and issues in Canada and the United States". Juvenile and Family Court Journal. 49 (3): 1–15. doi:10.1111/j.1755-6988.1998.tb01481.x.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b c Snyder, H. N. & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 national report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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  9. ^ Campaign for Youth Justice, Key Facts: Youth in the Justice System. Washington D.C.: Campaign for Youth Justice, 2007. Web. May 2011. CitingWoolard, J.; Odgers, Candice; Lanza-Kaduce, Lonn; Daglis, Hayley (2005). "Juveniles within Adult Correctional Settings: Legal Pathways and Developmental Considerations". International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. 4: 1–18. CiteSeerX doi:10.1080/14999013.2005.10471209.
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  44. ^ Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, s. 91
  45. ^ Children’s Rights: Germany
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