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Local View: Streets are more dangerous when juveniles are tried in court as adults

Twenty-four is the new 18 for brain researchers; that is the age at which science says the brain is fully developed. Fourteen is the new 18 for the criminal justice system; that is the most common minimum age at which children can be charged and ...

Twenty-four is the new 18 for brain researchers; that is the age at which science says the brain is fully developed. Fourteen is the new 18 for the criminal justice system; that is the most common minimum age at which children can be charged and tried as adults, with some states setting minimums as low as age 10. Adult court presumes that a defendant is fully capable of sound judgment in regard to controlling impulses, managing behavior when under pressure to break the law and of being able to get oneself out of potentially problematic situations.

So how do these two new ideas about adulthood mesh?

Science says what most people who have spent any time around children already know, that they are not famous for sound judgment calls. They tend to resist authority and accountability. Parents throughout time report that the character and traits their children develop as adults are often polar opposites to what those adults were like as teens.

Teens struggle with planning ahead, fully understanding long-term consequences of their actions, taking on the perspectives of others, controlling their impulses, and being able to understand and articulate their psychological states. They struggle with this not because they are bad but because the part of the brain responsible for these abilities, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully formed until the early to mid 20s. This does not mean that children should not be held accountable for their actions. It does indicate that an effective approach to do so will likely differ from an approach that works for adults.

On May 4 the News Tribune reported that in Duluth, Steven Albert Cooper, age 15, was certified to stand trial as an adult for a crime that occurred a week before his 15th birthday. Judge Shaun Floerke's closing memorandum regarding the decision stated, "Despite [his] lack of a formal delinquency record, that public safety requires that [he] be tried as an adult."

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The question is, is there good evidence to back Floerke's idea that his decision will increase public safety? The answer is a resounding no. The evidence shows that it is actually counterproductive to the goal of public safety. Study after study documents that children transferred from juvenile to adult court have a substantially higher rate of re-offending, that when they do re-offend, they do so earlier upon release, and that the nature of the re-offense tends to be more violent than the original crime compared to those who remained in the juvenile system for similar crimes.

The evidence demonstrates that the juvenile system does a better job of handling juveniles than the adult system and that the public is safer when children are dealt with separately in the criminal justice system.

Research, including a recent article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Angela McGowan and others, also shows that youth who are detained with adults are five times as likely to be sexually assaulted and are at much higher risk of assault, death and suicide than youths held in juvenile facilities. It shows they probably will receive very little in the way of education, mental health treatment or rehabilitative programs. It also shows that non-white youth are much more likely to be transferred to adult court than are white youths who commit comparable crimes.

These are only some of the reasons why international human rights standards clearly prohibit incarcerating children with adults.

The get-tough-on-crime sound bite, "adult time for adult crime," has a certain psychologically comforting feel about it for a lot of people -- erroneously safe and simple -- in spite of the way it backfires in the real world. Public policy decisions need to be based on sound empirical evidence rather than on sound bites that often are politically motivated. Public safety is not increased by transferring juveniles to adult court; public safety is diminished. That's what the hard evidence shows.

Floerke made a mistake. Justice was not served in Duluth on May 3, 2007, in the case of Steven Albert Cooper. Fifteen-year-olds cannot stand trial as adults because they are not adults and they will not magically turn into adults just because a court tells them to. Children are intrinsically different than adults; they are not mini-adults. The public is less safe when it pretends otherwise.

Ellie Schoenfeld of Duluth holds a master's degree in social work and has worked many years for social-service agencies.

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