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In Crime, Some Teens Become Adults

One of the four men arrested in the murder of Sean Taylor isn't a man, yet. He's just a teenager. The 17-year-old is facing felony murder and armed robbery charges.

Youth facing the adult criminal court system aren't that unusual according to the Associated Press, which reports that roughly 200,000 defendants under the age of 18 are prosecuted outside of the juvenile system.

For instance, in Omaha, a 14-year-old boy is being charged as an adult after allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer. The officer shot the boy in the leg. In Michigan, a 15-year-old is facing four adult counts of intent to commit murder and weapons charges in the shootings of two students and a couple. And in Provo, Utah, a 16-year-old boy charged with attempted murder will face those charges in an adult courtroom.

In California, a case went the opposite way. A 10-year-old who admitted to mistakenly starting one of California's wildfires by playing with matches was not charged with a crime.

The harsher penalties associated with moving juveniles to the adult criminal system were widely adopted in the 1990s. Now, many states are rethinking -- and revamping -- juvenile crime laws, the AP reports.

"They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious."

Do you think teens who commit crimes should be charged as juveniles or adults? What criteria should be used to decide?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  December 3, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Teens
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There is no black and white rules on this situation. Unfortunately each case has to be weighed by itself. Some things are ridiculous. Like the 6 year old that shot a student, should never be charged as an adult (which he wasn't). Because no six year old can really comprehend the crime and the consequences of their action. I am not sure they even fully understand death. But Most 13-17 year olds have a good idea about death, crime, and jail. In some of the cases, it may be appropriate to charge them as adults. But even so, I don't think they should go to adult jails till 18. The first few years of their sentence should be in a juvenile facility. But a 17 year old should not get away with murder because they are year younger then an 18 year old.

Posted by: foamgnome | December 3, 2007 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Haven't thought extensively about it, but I think probably either (a) having a record of previous crimes or (b) commiting a particularly heinous crime with intent should lead to a child being charged as an adult. Truly, though, once they're in the prison system, they're goners. I don't know what the answer is here.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | December 3, 2007 9:18 AM | Report abuse

lock 'em up and throw away the key!

Posted by: Slammer | December 3, 2007 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Trying teenagers as adults is so inappropriate! Yes, their crimes are, in some cases, horrible. Yes, people suffer dearly. But the frontal cortex of the brain is just not fully myelinated until even after 18. That means that young people are not able to fully plan or comprehend the long-term ramifications of their actions. So they need to be tried as children. And rather than being put in prison, they need to be *taught* how to think through long-term ramifications. This is a skill - one most people get eventually, but it can also be learned through deliberate conversation and teaching. I talk about this kind of thing a lot with parents, and it makes a serious difference in their relationship with their kids and in their kids' decision making skills. (

Posted by: Karen Rayne | December 3, 2007 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Karl Augustus Menninger (July 22, 1893 - July 18, 1990), born in Topeka, Kansas, was an American psychiatrist and a member of the famous Menninger family of psychiatrists who founded the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.

In The Crime of Punishment, Menninger argued that crime was preventable through psychiatric treatment; punishment was a brutal and inefficient relic of the past. He advocated treating offenders like the mentally ill.

His subsequent books, include The Vital Balance, Man Against Himself and Love Against Hate.

Posted by: G. Thackham | December 3, 2007 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I don't know that a 17 year old who is willing to wantonly shoot and kill someone is really rehabilitatable (sp). Comparing murder by a 17 year old to a fire started by a 10 year old is apples and oranges. The 17 year old is closer to 20 than 10. If they can't be expected to consider the long term ramifications of their actions, should they be driving at 16 then?

Posted by: Moxiemom | December 3, 2007 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Moxiemom - That's exactly why insurance rates are so much higher for teenagers. It's also why some countries are beginning to introduce a graduated driver's license - there's lots of information on various licensing procedures on wikipedia ('s_license).

In the US, there are some states which are instituting something similar. There are restrictions about how many additional non-family teenagers can be in the car, time of day, etc. This graduated process helps the teenagers learn to think about the ramifications of driving conditions - both inside and outside of the car.

Posted by: Karen Rayne | December 3, 2007 10:40 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the implications of not being able to fully plan or understand the long-term ramifications of one's actions does not necessarily lead to a firm rule of trying as children. Some offenses might not be appropriate against a teenager: felony murder, for instance, rests upon the assumption that a criminal understands that participating in an armed robbery may readily lead to a killing, so it might not be appropriate to try a teenaged accomplice for murder on that basis. But as to the actual shooter, it's a different question as to whether he understood that pulling the trigger could lead to a killing, and trial as an adult might be much more reasonable.

Posted by: Tom T. | December 3, 2007 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Teenagers aren't capable, developmentally, of fully understanding the ramifications of their actions. They have very little, if any, impulse control. Look, if we have laws stating that you can't exercise adult judgement to drink alcohol until you're 21, or vote until you're 18, how can you then be accused of having the same decision-making ability and culpability for a crime as an adult? We need to get this system straightened out very quickly. Either you're an adult at 18 or 21, or you aren't. There's a reason why there's a juvenile justice system. Use it.

Posted by: Mazarin | December 3, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

For serious crimes like murder and rape - I think they should be punished as an adult. I hear what y'all are saying about not understanding the ramifications as a child, but I think a 17 year old understands what murdering someone is. What are we supposed to do, pat them on the head and send them back home? If your child or spouse were killed by a 16 or 17 year old, would you want them in a juvey home and then released in a year or two?
For less serious crimes, make them work to pay restitution. Better then locking them up!

Posted by: Me | December 3, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Actually, I think the greater question is what is wrong with America that this is such a pervasive problem amongst our youth. Other developed countries do not have nearly our juvenile violent crime rates. How about treating the disease, not the symptoms?

Posted by: Moxiemom | December 3, 2007 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Heed (and continue) the research. If trial and incarceration of youths as if they were adults worsen the recidivism rate among youths, then stop trying them as adults.

Posted by: Olney | December 3, 2007 11:40 AM | Report abuse

there have been multiple comments on the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed untill the early 20's, which is true, but that area of the brain is responsible for the personality, not necessarly decision making. think back people...when you were 16 or 17, did you know that killing a person was wrong, morally and in the eyes of the law? i sure did, and knew not to do so, regardless of the violent video game that was being played that week. although young and clearly immature, these kids should know (and in my opinion are fully capable of knowing) that killing or raping is wrong and there are consequences.

Posted by: R | December 3, 2007 12:31 PM | Report abuse

R - You're confused. The frontal lobe plays a huge part in planning, impulse control, and judgment. Look it up.

Yes, all healthy, normal teenagers "know" in a cognitive sense, that rape, murder, etc. are wrong - horribly, horribly wrong. That's why most of them don't do those things. Nevertheless, teenagers (those who do commit the crimes and those who do not commit the crimes) do not have a fully adult understanding of death or of being raped. They cannot have the same understanding as adults, and so they should not be tried or punished in the same way.

Also, our criminal system is primarily based on the idea that harsh sentencing will reduce crime. And teenagers have almost no ability to really understand the potential criminal ramifications of crimes they are considering committing. So, while I believe this approach to be mostly ineffective with adults, it is completely ineffective with teenagers.

Posted by: Karen Rayne | December 3, 2007 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I think the other question to ask is what is the point of prison? Is it to punshis or rehabilitate, both?

Posted by: Moxiemom | December 3, 2007 1:54 PM | Report abuse

punish - oops.

Posted by: Moxiemom | December 3, 2007 2:01 PM | Report abuse

The real question here is whether or not our justice system exists to rehabilitate the perpetrator to make them see their errors and create a person who can operate correctly in society or whether the system exists to punish people for the benefit of the innocent victim of crime.

Because when I was picked up for trespassing on school property by the police, I was furious. I had done nothing wrong and I was using the bathroom in a school building that I spent 5 days a week in while my friends were outside at the basketball court. There was no victim, no B+E, no vandalism, nothing. Yet here I was being tried by a judge who thankfully concluded that no crime existed. What I had to do was get my head straight about how to act in society and what my boundaries were even when I meant no harm.

As opposed to a teenager who clubbed a friend unconscious during a robbery- that person threatened my friend the day he got out of jail and was sent right back in. Society has a right to be kept safe and if it means that violent kids don't get rehabilitated, it's the time when the kids themselves recognize its their job to rehabilitate themselves.

Everyone has heard the stories about the people who snapped at age 60 and did something violent. Many people in society get very angry and have to deal with that anger productively. It isn't really my problem if a kid can't get their head straight.

Posted by: DCer | December 3, 2007 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Karen-Perhaps you are (also) confused. you are right that i did not place enough emphasis on the decision making aspect of the frontal lobe (believe me i have looked it up many times throughout my education), yet it seems you are over emphasizing it. the claim that these children CRIMINALS have no "adult understanding" of crime may not be accurate, but it is a good opinion, and indeed stated well. although, claiming that these kids have no adult understanding and should not be tried as adults implies that they are completley void of such thought today and yet will one day obtain this understanding. this view is ignoring the fact that the development of the frontal lobe and the 'adult understanding' is a process (not gone one day when a crime is commited and there the next). there are some 13-17 year olds who may have a better view of those adult understandings, just as it would be true that there are other teens less developed in that aspect. and so the courts look at this topic in a case to case basis.

the point i was trying to get across before is simply that an individual 13-17 has an ability to understand their actions (which can be seen in their ability to lie or decieve...this understanding that their thoughts will differ from the thoughts of another, and will follow with the desired outcome shows a high level of thought and planning) although this level of thought is indeed far from the 'adult understanding' level, i feel that it is enough to understand what is right and wrong.
but hey...we are both entitled to our opinions...

Posted by: Anonymous | December 3, 2007 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Completely agreed that a 13 - 17 year old has a different understanding of right and wrong than a 10 year old or a 6 year old. Brain development is a process. A 17 year old is much, much closer to an adult perspective than a 13 or a 10 year old. They're just still not there yet. And this trend of trying younger and younger teenagers as adults is detrimental, on a societal level, because it locks these kids into a life course, rather than helping back on the right path.

Clearly, some people are sociopaths. Sometimes that shows up early. And yes, some teenagers need to be kept out of society - both for their own safety and other's.

Perhaps a better way to have said it was that teenagers need to be tried, not as adults, not as children, but as teenagers. Those are all distinct phases of understanding and moral reasoning.

Posted by: Karen Rayne | December 3, 2007 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"Perhaps a better way to have said it was that teenagers need to be tried, not as adults, not as children, but as teenagers. Those are all distinct phases of understanding and moral reasoning."

well put Karen

Posted by: Anonymous | December 3, 2007 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure I care if the criminal system is effective with teenagers as long as they are no longer on the street to cause more harm to others.

Posted by: 21117 | December 3, 2007 3:03 PM | Report abuse

21117 - I'm very sorry that you feel that way. While there are some people (including teenagers) who are simply mentally ill, and need to be removed from society, most teenagers are still very open to learning how to be responsible, honest, contributing members of society. It saddens me that you are willing to write them off so completely.

Posted by: Karen Rayne | December 3, 2007 6:32 PM | Report abuse

The CDC just came out with a report (Thursday) after 4 years of study showing that juveniles who spend time in jails and prisons come out more dangerous and more violent (and many of them come out traumatized and mentally unstable too). Many of these kids going in are there pre-trial - meaning they haven't even been convicted of anything yet (many don't even get jail time accding to the numebrs). But, even a short time in adult jail is very damaging, and suicides rates for kids in jail (within the first 30 days) are vastly higher than for the rest of the population.

Posted by: ssg | December 4, 2007 11:37 AM | Report abuse

i Believe some cases yes do lock them up but when its not that bad then no way. They should never be put away for life. If we put them away for life then they didnt learn what they did wrong and they cant move on from it. Wouldnt you want a second chance?

Posted by: Angelique Lane | December 13, 2007 4:02 PM | Report abuse

If you wish to try someone under 18 as an adult, then it should follow that they be granted all the other rights that come with it. Ironically, this is not the case...

You can't join the military until you're 18.
You can't (in any normal circumstance) be emancipated until you're 18.
You can't vote until you're 18.

But you CAN be charged as an adult BEFORE you're 18.

Posted by: . | January 5, 2008 2:09 AM | Report abuse

while a 17 year old knows more than a 6 year old, they do not know as much as a 30 year old...their frontal lobe is not developed which controls judgement and empathy.........while juveniles may be allowed to drive, it is illegal for them to drink, smoke, buy porn, stay out late, serve in the military, etc.....if the gov't feels they are not responsible or mature enough to do these things then why do they think they are responsible and mature enougn to go to jail........juveniles also have egocentrism which causes them to warp data to fit their beliefs and think that everyone feels the way they do, this can be minor or major..........juveniles also are NOT ADULTS, so why are they adults when they do something wrong........there is too much inconsistency, why do some crimes deem juves as adults but not others.....putting them in jail or prison is hazardous to their well being and is cruel and unusual punishment, also it adds to overcrowding........finally many say if juves can commit the crime, then thay can go to jail, but a mentally handicapped person can murder someone and be treated different, and if u think about it a juve is not fully developed, so are technically mentally juves a capable of drinking, buying porn, staying out late, serving in military but they cannot handle themselves, assess situations, and protect themselves as adults can, so why should they hav to handle and protect themselves in the justice system as an adult would

Posted by: Me | January 5, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

to comment on 21117, juves are often not put in jail or prison because sympathy taken by jurors, and overcrowding often leads judges to waive juve cases back to juve court, also, if they are charged, as ssg said, juves are worse because the trauma they were exposed to................while the juve justice system needs improvement, putting juves in w/adults is not better than in juve facilities...........there is also inconsistency in the system because in high crime areas, juves are less likely to be tried as adults than they would in a low crime area....some judges are racist.......100% of juve facilites have rehabilitation programs, and in comparison to jails and prisons w/rehab, juve rehab is more successful.....its not a question of what they know as right and wrong but whether they can defend themselves in court, and if they can think using judgement as well as an adult before they commit a crime......lastly the scare tactic does not work because crime has increased, juves do not have a developed cerebral cortex which controls judgement, so they do not look ahead and assess a situation and consequences, and finally adults still offend and KNOW they will go to jail or prison

Posted by: Me | January 5, 2008 1:51 PM | Report abuse

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