In recent years, more juveniles have been tried as adults in criminal courts. What juveniles experience in adult court stands in stark contrast to their experiences in juvenile court. The first juvenile court was created around the turn of the 20th century. It was purposely set up to meet the unique needs of young people. Procedures in the juvenile court differ from those used in the criminal courts. Because of those differences, juveniles are not afforded some of the same legal protections as are adults.
Most laws allowing for juveniles to be tried as adults were passed in the 1990s in response to moral panics about youth and school violence. The case of 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham in Michigan highlighted this issue.
Although the United States has a separate juvenile court system, there are several ways juveniles can be tried as adults. Judicial waivers, also known as discretionary waivers, allow juvenile court judges to make the decision that a specific individual should be tried in adult court, based on a motion filed by the prosecutor. Judges assess the severity of the incident and decide whether they believe the perpetrator is amenable to rehabilitation before issuing the judicial waiver. In some cases, known as presumptive waivers, judges are required by statute to waive juvenile defendants to adult court unless the juvenile can document that he or she is capable of being rehabilitated. Legislative waivers, also known as statutory exclusion, involve laws that specify when juveniles must be tried as adults. Some legislation specifies particular ages whereby a juvenile must be transferred to adult court or specific offenses that must be waived.
Concurrent jurisdiction allows prosecutors to retain the discretion regarding whether juveniles will be tried in juvenile or adult court. In blended sentencing, juvenile and criminal courts may render sentencing at the same time, requiring an individual to serve, for instance, a short time as a juvenile and then an additional short sentence as an adult.
Between 1994 and 2000, the rates of waivers fluctuated between 6,000 and 12,000 annually. Florida led the nation in the number of youth tried as adults in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2000, 466 youth were incarcerated in Florida state prisons. One-fourth of the youth tried as adults in Florida were mixed into the adult prison population. In 2006, an estimated 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults in the United States, representing an increase of more than 200% since the 1990s.
Critics contend that many of the juveniles who are waived to adult court are not serious, violent offenders. Regardless of the severity of the offense, at some point these juveniles will be released from prison. When they are housed with the most dangerous adult offenders, they may come out of prison even more dangerous than when they entered. Research has shown that juveniles who are held in adult prisons are significantly more likely to experience abuse and are more likely to reoffend than are comparable youth held in juvenile facilities. Moreover, research has not confirmed that trying juveniles as adults helps reduce crime. Finally, research suggests that juveniles do not understand the adult court system well enough to aid in their own defense.
The case of 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill was one of the first to shed light on the issue of trying as adults juveniles who perpetrated crimes at schools. Teah Wemberly, who was 15 at the time she shot a classmate at Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was tried as an adult; she was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Wayne Treacey, who brutally attacked and almost killed classmate Josie Ratley, was also 15 at the time of his crime; he will be tried as an adult in Florida as well. Three of the boys who attacked 15-year-old Michael Brewer of Deerfield Beach, Florida, were charged as adults.
- Hiber, M. (2008). Should juveniles be tried as adults? New York: Greenhaven.
- Hightower, E. (2008, November 21). Florida teen charged as adult in school shooting death. World Socialist website. Retrieved April 20, 2010, from http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/11/flor-n21.html
- Marks, A. (2007, March 22). States rethink trying juveniles as adults. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved April 18, 2010, from http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0322/p03s03-usju.html
- PBS Frontline. (n.d.). Does treating kids like adults make a difference? Retrieved April 18, 2010, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/juvenile/stats/kidslikeadults.html
- Wright, T. (2010, April 16). Josie Lou’s attacker charged as an adult. NBC Miami. Retrieved April 20, 2010, from http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Josie-Lous-Attacker-Charged-as-an-Adult-91058499.html