States move to protect juveniles from the adult justice system

Often, when we think of juvenile law, we imagine vandalism or underage drinking. While this does account for a large portion of a juvenile court’s caseload, other, more serious crimes are fairly common as well. These crimes come with heavy punishments, often because their cases are pushed up to adult court, where sentences are longer and harsher.

In the past few years, many states have begun to reexamine their criminal justice laws as they relate to juveniles, a response to accusations that the system doesn’t do enough to rehabilitate juveniles. Indeed, the trend of sending juvenile offenders to the state’s adult prisons has received heavy criticism recently, as observers point out that the practice is helpful for neither juveniles nor society at large.

As a response to this criticism, many states have begun to pass laws that limit a court’s ability to try juveniles as adults. Approximately one-third of states, including Maryland, have passed such laws.

Two states, Illinois and Massachusetts, recently passed laws the place 17-year-olds under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, rather than adult courts. Most states, including Maryland, carry laws of this sort. Only 10 states still count 17-year-olds as adults without exception.

Other states passed laws that placed limitations on courts’ abilities to send juveniles to adult courts; two passed laws that gave juvenile offenders tried as adults the ability to be sent back down to juvenile court. Though Maryland was not among these states, our legislature recently created a “Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction,” a committee that will study the current juvenile criminal justice system and offer suggestions for its improvement.

In addition, eight states passed laws that prevent juveniles from spending time in adult jails altogether. They may still be subjected to some other aspects of the adult criminal justice system, however.

Every year, many juveniles are tried in adult courts, courts that hand down punishments that were intended for adults. Often, these juveniles have a very difficult time in adult prisons, and come out of the facilities with an even greater inclination to commit crimes than they had going in. In addition, the prison sentence acts as a black mark on their record, one that will make it more difficult to get their young life back on track. Hopefully, then, laws such as these will rectify this problem and refocus the system’s efforts onto rehabilitating minors, rather than simply incarcerating them.

Source:  The Chronicle of Social Change, “Sixteen States Have Shielded More Juveniles from Adult System Since 2011” John Kelly, Oct. 10, 2013