Only rarely does an under-18 juvenile defendant wind up in adult court. Yet some activists would put an end to that practice in every instance, no matter the crime and no matter the criminal. But can they really prove that adult punishment is neverappropriate for juveniles who’ve committed adult crimes?
The overwhelming majority of juvenile crimes, from petty vandalism to violent homicide, are handled by the juvenile justice system, not adult courts. The separation of the two systems is a recognition of the differences between juveniles and adults and offers juveniles, by default, greater opportunities for forgiveness and redemption. Juvenile courts exist, in large part, to rehabilitate youth who’ve done wrong.
But that’s not possible or appropriate in every case. Some juveniles commit crimes so horrific in their depravity that justice could not be carried out in the juvenile system. Other crimes, and their perpetrators, evince maturity commensurate with adult punishment.
An example spanning both classes was 16-year-old Sarah Johnson’s plot to murder her parents and pin the crime on an intruder. Her case was transferred to adult court, and Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
A key to providing appropriate punishment across a wide range of cases is the transfer process. In some states, judges decide whether to grant the state’s request to move a juvenile to adult court; in others, removal is automatic for certain specified crimes, usually murder. This is how we separate out those few crimes committed by juveniles deserving of adult trial and punishment.
Take that option away, or unduly restrict the punishments available, and it won’t be possible to provide individualized justice in every case. Adult punishments should be available for juvenile criminals, if (as today) sparingly applied.
First appeared on Nytimes.com.