Science Backs Up The Movement Away From Adult Courts For Teenagers
Hartford Courant Editorial
July 18, 2012
Teenagers under age 18 who are charged with misdemeanors can no longer be tried as adults in Connecticut. This overdue new law reflects a more nuanced societal understanding of adolescent development and psychology.
By 2010, Connecticut was one of only three states still maintaining a maximum juvenile age of 15, alongside New York and North Carolina. Starting July 1, those under 18 charged with non-felonies are being handled by Connecticut's juvenile courts, which often provide community-based treatments rather than stricter adult court penalties. Class A and B felonies will automatically be handled in the adult courts regardless of the defendantís age, but Class C and D felonies committed by those under 18 will get a hearing, after which the case could be sent to either the adult or juvenile court system. Several thousand cases annually involving 16- and 17-year-olds will now be tried in this manner.
This change is grounded in neurobiological, psychological and social science research. The National Institutes of Health concluded that the brain area inhibiting risky behavior does not fully develop until 25. Strong evidence shows that by age 18 people begin to offend less. Alan Bruce, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Quinnipiac University, writes that treating teenage criminals as adults increases the likelihood of recidivism.
Beyond Connecticut, this philosophy has taken hold in the U.S. Supreme Court. June's decision in Miller v. Alabama ó in conjunction with 2010's Graham v. Florida ó together ruled that life in prison without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. These decisions expanded the precedent established in 2005's Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the Miller majority opinion, children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of severe punishments for lesser crimes.
The challenging task of a criminal justice system is achieving appropriate balances between punishment and rehabilitation, between public safety and compassion. By trying those under 18 as juveniles except for the most despicable actions, Connecticut aims to achieve that balance.
CORRECTION: As of July 1, those under 18 charged with non-felonies are being handled by Connecticutís juvenile courts. Class A and B felonies are still automatically handled in the adult courts regardless of the defendantís age, but those under 18 who are charged with Class C and D felonies will get a hearing, after which the case could be sent to either the adult or juvenile court system.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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