An earlier Future of Children blog post underscored a shift in the juvenile justice system toward more moderate policies, including greater emphasis on treatment programs as opposed to incarceration. Another sign of the policy transition, as indicated by Laurence Steinberg in the Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, is the 2005 Supreme Court opinion to eliminate capital punishment for juveniles. In 2010 the court also brought an end to life sentences without parole for juveniles not guilty of homicide.
The recent school shootings in Ohio and subsequent media discourse regarding whether 17 year-old suspect TJ Lane should be tried as an adult have renewed public discussion about appropriate sentencing for juveniles. In some states, life in prison without the possibility of parole is a mandatory sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide, meaning the youth’s background and age are not even taken into account. However, many believe that context is crucial to a fair sentence, especially for young offenders. National Public Radio reports that the Supreme Court hears arguments this week regarding whether it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, even for homicide.
In their chapter Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime, Elizabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg explain that before the shift toward more moderate policy today, there had been a steady increase in homicide rates among juveniles, sparking a “moral panic” catalyzed by the media, which led to reform movements and harsher sentencing. “Through a variety of initiatives, the boundary of childhood has shifted dramatically in a relatively short time, so that youths who are legal minors for every other purpose, are adults when it comes to their criminal conduct.” Today many politicians and the public realize the high economic costs and ineffectiveness of such initiatives. Context, more than punishment, is becoming a more frequented topic in policy discussion.
Drawing on evidence in developmental psychology, Scott and Steinberg argue that adolescents differ from adults in several ways. Teens may be less able than adults to use their capacities for cognitive reasoning because of a lack of experience and less efficiency in processing information. They may be less culpable than adults because they are more vulnerable to external pressures and coercion from peers. Finally, they contend that adolescent character may be relatively unformed.
To add your voice to the discussion on juvenile justice policy, comment on this or other related blog posts. For discussion on policies related to other adolescent behavior, see the Future of Children volumes on the Transition to Adulthood and America’s High Schools. Also, check out the Future of Children website and follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter.