Child-Criminals: The Unclear Relationship between Children and the Justice System

It is estimated that in 2017, nearly 809,700 children under the age of 18 were arrested in the United States for crimes including burglary, arson, drug abuse, and homicide. [1] This statistic displays an intensifying debate in America: the treatment of children in the criminal justice system. While these youths were clearly convicted for violating the law, what remains unclear in the law is how these children should be distinguished from their adult criminal counterparts.

The most recent event that demonstrates this lack of clarity is a current case involving a 10-year-old girl from Wisconsin who was charged on November 5th, 2018 as an adult with first degree homicide for the death of an infant. While specific details about the case and the girl’s identity have not been revealed, it is alleged that the girl was watching a 6-month old baby at a daycare owned by her foster family when she allegedly dropped the child causing him to cry, and in a panic, proceeded to stomp on the baby’s head in order to get him to quiet down. The infant died two days later in the hospital as a result of his injuries. [2] Besides its tragic nature, this case is so controversial due to a glaring reason: Wisconsin law mandates that all charges of first-degree homicide be taken up initially in adult court if the offender is aged 10 or older, meaning that this 10-year-old child is being treated as if she were a full-grown adult. [3]

In order to better understand the issue of children in the criminal justice system, one must also understand the discrepancy between states regarding the handling of such individuals. Thirteen states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults. [4] In addition, almost every state has different statutes outlining the process for the pre-trial detention of children who are charged with crimes as an adult. Relatively tough states for alleged child offenders include Alabama and North Dakota, whose laws require that children are held in adult facilities with no special protection. Conversely, more protective states such as New York and California allow for children to be housed in adult jails but only with special guidelines such as not being allowed near offenders over the age of 21 and receiving extra supervision. West Virginia is the only state that has a statute barring any child–regardless of crime–from being detained in adult jail. [5] The wide array of laws and regulations surrounding the treatment of minors who are charged as adults speaks to the lack of consensus and divide in America over the distinction between children and adults in the criminal justice system.

While the disparity between states regarding the treatment of juvenile offenders continues, overarching federal legislation does in fact exist. The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act passed in 1938 and most recently amended in 1984, outlines several rights granted to juveniles charged with federal crimes such as the right not to be jailed unless it was necessary to secure their custody or safety or community safety, the right to be separated from adults, and the right to veto juvenile delinquency proceedings. [6]

Beyond federal legislation, the Supreme Court has also made rulings on cases which clearly define the distinctions between adults and children in the context of the law. In Graham v. Florida in 2010, the 16-year-old Terrence Graham was tried and convicted by a Florida state court for armed home robbery and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In a challenge to the sentence, the Court ruled that the imposition of a life sentence without parole on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicidal offense violated the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The decision put an emphasis on a youth’s inability to reason at the same level as adults, saying they have difficulty in participating in their representation, leaving them at a disadvantage. [7]

While the Graham ruling was monumental in establishing that children can–if not should– be treated differently in the criminal justice system, the Court subsequently weakened its own ruling last spring when it refused to hear an appeal of a man from Missouri sentenced to 241 years in prison as a juvenile. Bobby Bostic was sentenced to prison without parole until the age of 112 following an armed robbery he committed at age 16 where two individuals were injured but not killed. The Missouri Attorney General, Josh Hawley, commented on the matter and said that the ruling in Graham v. Florida did not apply to Bostic’s case as he was sentenced for 18 crimes whereas the former concerns only individuals convicted of one crime. This stance was affirmed by the Court when it remained silent on the matter, a decision that will most likely cost Bobby Bostic his life in prison.

Despite this refusal, the Court has continued to develop its stance from Graham that children cannot reason as well as adults and thus should be treated differently in the justice system. In J.D.B. v. North Carolina in 2011, a 13-year-old special education student who was suspected of committing a series of burglaries was questioned about the issue at school by a police officer. In this questioning, J.D.B. ended up confessing, but later tried to suppress the confession on the grounds that he was not read his Miranda Rights and was not informed of his ability to leave. The Court held his age needed to be considered when trying to determine the Miranda custody circumstances of the confession, and therefore sent the case back for reevaluation. This ruling yet again made a distinction between juveniles and adults in the criminal justice system, as it placed significance on age as a factor in deciding how certain cases are handled. [9]

How minors are viewed in the context of the criminal justice system in America has been a fluid evolution over the course of its history, but it still has not come to a final resolution. From state to state and even across the federal jurisdiction, there seems to be no real consensus on how these children are to be treated, regardless of the crime that they allegedly have committed. While the Court has stepped in several times to attempt to clarify the distinction between juvenile and adult offenders, there is no clear-cut policy. Until a general agreement can be reached by the government, justice for future child offenders seems to be stuck in a perpetual gray area.

[1] OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, October 22, 2018.

[2] "10-year-old Girl Charged with Killing Baby at Day Care." New York Post, November 6, 2018.

[3] Dalbey, Beth. "Wisconsin Girl, 10, Charged With Murder In Baby's Death." Patch, November 8, 2018.

[4] "Underage Prosecution." Equal Justice Initiative, 2017.

[5] Goeman, Melissa, Tracey Evans, Eileen Geller, and Ross Harrington. Children Being Tried As Adults: Pretrial Detention Laws in the U.S.

[6] Alexander, Rudolph, Jr. "Federal Juvenile Justice Act." Journal for Juvenile Justice and Detention Services 14, no. 1 (1999): 63-71.

[7] "Graham v. Florida." Oyez. Accessed December 4, 2018.

[8] "Supreme Court Rejects Appeal of St. Louis Man with 241-year Prison Term." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 24, 2018.

[9] "J.D.B. v. North Carolina." Oyez. Accessed December 4, 2018.

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