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When are juvenile offenders supposed to be treated like adults?

One of the most controversial issues in the American criminal justice system is the way that juvenile offenders are treated, regarded and prosecuted. The issue is often as vexing for criminal defense attorneys as it is for prosecutors and legislators.

The question at the heart of the matter is this: should juvenile crimes and juvenile offenders be treated differently than adult crimes and adult offenders? Emerging research about development during adolescence makes this question especially difficult to answer.

A recent New York Times article discussed research suggesting that teenagers need to be understood in two different ways. The first is their chronological (or physical) age. This is, quite simply, how many years they have been on this earth. But teenagers also need to be understood by their psychological age, which can be several years higher or lower than their chronological age. It can also fluctuate.

At 13 years old, for instance, some newly minted teenagers are still acting like they did at age 10. Others are acting more like 16- and 17-year-olds, which often involves participating in illegal activities (such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol).

In most states, the age of majority is 18. But this line between adolescence and adulthood is largely arbitrary. Some teens develop much more slowly than others. Is it fair to try one teenager as a juvenile and another as an adult based simply on a slim difference in chronological age?

Another problem with America’s approach to juvenile justice is that juveniles are often tried as adults not based on their age, but rather based on the severity of their crime. The 13-year-old who commits murder may seem to act with the self-assurance and malice of an adult offender, but their motivations might be very different.

To be sure, the issue of juvenile justice reform is complex. But a juvenile offender’s future looks very different and much bleaker when they are tried as an adult. For that and other reasons, this is an issue that deserves our full and careful attention.

Source: The New York Times, "Thirteen in Years, but 10 or 15 in Thoughts and Action," Annie Murphy Paul, June 18, 2014

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Meet Attorney Guillory

Attorney Joshua S. Guillory was born in Alexandria, Louisiana. Upon graduating high school from Alexandria Senior High, he enrolled in classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree. Josh was a member of Mu Kappa Tau, a national honor society for marketing majors, while attending... Read More

Joshua S. Guillory

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