Friday, November 23, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Young offenders court, a step too far?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
November 23, 2012

When it comes to holding violent young people accountable the slippery slope just got a little more slippery. A new study suggests that 18 to 24 year-olds should be prosecuted in specialty courts, not the adult criminal justice system.

In the late 1990s, Professor James Alan Fox predicted a “coming teenage crime storm.” Young “super-predators” were described by a Florida Congressman in 1997 as, “the most dangerous criminals on the face of the earth.”

The 1994 Department of Justice report, Violent Crime: National Crime Victimization Survey found that young people age 16-24 consistently have the highest violent crime rates.

A lot has changed since the mid-1990s. Violent crime has fallen to its lowest level in decades. More importantly for young people, there is a growing body of research showing that brain development continues into at least the early twenties. The arguments are now familiar -- young people are more impulsive than adults, more readily swayed by their peers and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions.

In 2005, relying in part on this research, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that juveniles are cognitively immature and therefore less culpable.

When the Roper case was argued death penalty opponents floated the idea that life without parole was an appropriate alternative to the death penalty.

As the brain development argument gained acceptance in courtrooms across the country, and the death penalty was banned, life in prison no longer seemed like an appropriate alternative.

In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down juvenile life in prison for non-homicide offenses. In Graham v. Florida, the court used the Roper analysis, “When  compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability. The age of the offender and the nature of the crime each bear on the analysis.”

This spring, Miller v. Alabama, took it a step further, outlawing mandatory life in prison for juvenile killers. The high court found that mandatory sentencing schemes “prevent the sentencer from considering youth and from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”

A new study of young offenders in Criminology & Public Policy takes the next logical step in the brain development argument, but is it a step too far? The study’s authors suggested that the cognitive functioning of offenders changes gradually, and young adults aged 18-24 are similar, in many respects, to juveniles aged 15-17. Therefore, young people continue to mature into the mid-20s.

The authors concluded that young offenders prosecuted in adult courts and sent to prison with adults are much more likely to continue offending than those who were not dealt with by the adult system. They argued, among other things, to establish special courts for young adult offenders aged 18-24. The special courts could focus on rehabilitation, reentry and redemption.

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