The argument about whether or not we should have a system where our juveniles are tried as adults creates a great deal of uproar across political and social lines. The United States is considered to have one of the most stringent and punitive criminal justice systems in the world (Hirschel & Wakefield 4) and a complex children’s services institution as well.
The continued growth of what has come to be known as the “prison industrial complex” (Dyer 3) has drawn criticism for its questionable practices regarding the treatment of certain segments of the prison population, including the mentally ill (Specter 109), African-Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities (O’Connor 9), and, more recently, juvenile offenders (Baron & Hartnagel 191). More and more adolescents, and even younger children, are being arrested for criminal acts, and the criminal justice system is increasingly taking the position that juvenile offenders should be treated, in many cases, as adults (U.S. Department of Justice 5). This trend has been gaining momentum since at least the 1980s, when the juvenile violent crime arrest rate increased by 64% in a span of just six years (U.S. Department of Justice 2). Although juveniles represent a small percentage of violent crime offenders, and despite the fact that violent offense rates among this age cohort have been declining steadily since the latter half of the 1990s, the public’s perception that there is a “new breed of violent juveniles, or ‘superpredators’” (U.S. Department of Justice 2) has contributed to widespread support of the phenomenon of trying juveniles as adults.
Prior to the 1980s, juveniles who committed crimes were treated differently than adults, which complicates attempts when juveniles are tried as adults The juvenile justice system was focused more on rehabilitation than on punishment, and the “preservation of the privacy of juveniles adjudicated in the juvenile court [was] a critical component of the youth’s rehabilitation [process]” (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention para. 1). As media reports about youth violence became more and more prevalent and sensationalized, however, and as related changes in criminal justice—including the rise of victims’ rights groups—began to occur, a number of philosophical and pragmatic shifts in the treatment of juvenile offenders began to occur. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention identified these changes as including increased “public access to and victim participation in juvenile proceedings, broadening access to juvenile records, fingerprinting and photographing delinquent youth, and altering expungement laws for juvenile records” (para. 1). These changes are significant, but they do not include the ways in which the trial and sentencing phases of the juvenile justice system have changed as well and do not reflect this in terms as juveniles being tried as adults.
There are numerous legal, ethical, moral, social, and political consequences of shifting the criminal justice system so that it treats juvenile offenders using the same criteria as those used to investigate, try, and convict offenders who are being tried as adults. First, given that adolescents are still in the midst of their cognitive, physical, and psychological development, is it logical to treat them as adults (Redding 128)? What are the compelling reasons, substantiated by empirical evidence, that suggest the treatment of juvenile offenders as adults will result in successful outcomes, and further, how are successful outcomes in such cases even defined? What attitudes in society have influenced this move towards treating children and adolescents as adults when they commit crimes? Does treating a juvenile offender as an adult preclude any meaningful alternatives that are philosophically and practically oriented towards rehabilitation (Redding 128)? Also, does placing juvenile offenders in the same correctional facilities as adult offenders actually perpetuate patterns of violent and criminal behavior by exposing young people to more seasoned criminals (Bishop 81)?
Finally, what do the complicated and often confusing dynamics between federal policy and state policy suggest about the fair and consistent application of justice in the treatment of juveniles accused of crimes (U.S. Department of Justice 2)? While the federal government has become actively involved in the juvenile-as-adult debate, each state has largely been left to its own interests and decision-making authority to “punish and hold accountable those juveniles who had, by instant offense or history, passed a threshold of tolerated ‘juvenile’ criminal behavior” (U.S. Department of Justice 2). They have responded with a wide variety of intervention and response strategies that result in disparate treatment of juvenile offenders across the United States. The scope of this paper is to examine the specific decisions of one state, Colorado, and the way in which it handles juvenile offenders.