Weighing Prison Time for Juvenile Offenders

By Christopher Zoukis

The debate on whether or not teens should be tried as adults and be locked up in adult prisons rages on on each side of the issue. Some take a more compassionate stance that young offenders deserve second chances after making big mistakes, especially if their crimes are nonviolent in nature. On the other hand, there is the view that stiff penalties act as deterrents to offenders to re-offend and serve as a message to society about the consequences of criminal behavior.

Each crime has individual circumstances and each perpetrator a different background, but one thing we do know is that teen brains are not yet fully developed. Children’s Hospital Boston research indicates that teen’s brains operate at 80 percent of their full potential development. The frontal lobe — the part where impulsivity, hindsight, emotional control, and other signals that might help steer them toward more reasonable behavior is simply not fully tuned. Because of their age, teens are, scientifically speaking, not fully rational. That doesn’t mean, however, that every teen is a ticking criminal time bomb, nor does it mean that they can’t learn from their mistakes.

Centers for Disease Control has found that youth sentenced in the juvenile system are less likely to return to a life of crime compared those that are tried and sentenced as adults. Alternatively, youth that do time in facilities rather than performing community service or other types of restorative justice are much more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, and perpetuate a cycle of poverty, crime, and violence.

And there are indeed instances when youth commit very serious crimes that warrant harsher responses. Twelve year old Christopher Pittman murdered his grandparents with a shotgun. Rachel Shoaf and Sheila Eddy, both 16, lured a classmate out of her home and stabbed her to death. John Katehis, also 16, brutally stabbed a man multiple times. In instances such as this, it’s difficult to imagine going light on sentencing because the perpetrators are youth who lack the ability to fully rationalize their decisions. There’s a definite line between stealing a video game and ending a life.

What the juvenile justice system needs is more balance. Each youth deserves to be judged on their circumstances and the crime. Background, environment, exposure to crime, and the adults and role models in that youth’s life should all be factors taken into consideration when deciding a sentence, and whether to sentence as a juvenile or an adult. For example, was the crime motivated by hate, or a necessity such as hunger, or was it committed in self-defense? Each case should be judged on its individual merits. If a youth commits a heinous crime serious enough to warrant the harshest penalties, it makes sense to remove such an offender from the streets and to incarcerate. But if a youth is teetering on the edge of adulthood and is found guilty of a nonviolent crime, it’s worthwhile to consider consequences that can actually help reform them, rather than a sentence that dooms them for life.

This article first appeared on Blogcritics.com.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.