Juvenile Court jurisdiction should be based on a young person’s age at the time of their offense, replacing statutes in some states that kick a juvenile case up to adult criminal court when a person turns 18 during the course of court proceedings, according to a forthcoming essay in the Villanova Law Review.
Erin Fitzgerald, a faculty fellow at New England Law /Boston, condemns the damaging impact of state policies that treat juvenile offenders as adults based on their age during legal proceedings, rather than their age at the time of their offense.
Juvenile court jurisdiction across the country should be based on a young person’s age at the time of their offense, Fitzgerald argues in a Boston Legal Studies research paper, entitled, “Put the Juvenile Back in Juvenile Court.”
Statutes set juvenile court jurisdiction, and generally, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over offenders under the “age of majority,” at or around 18 years old. When an offender’s age equals or exceeds the age of majority, adult criminal court has jurisdiction.
At issue is the jurisdictional problem-area where a juvenile offender commits a crime while underage but isn’t prosecuted until after they become an adult. Some state statutes send those offenders on to criminal court based on their current age when brought to court, rather than the age they were when the offense allegedly took place.
In states where jurisdiction is based on age at the time of legal proceedings, Fitzgerald writes, “juvenile offenders lose all the protections and benefits of the juvenile court system, despite having been a juvenile and, therefore, less culpable and more deserving of rehabilitation, at the time of the alleged offense.”
Juvenile offenders in states that determine juvenile court jurisdiction based on current age are at a disadvantage, Fitzgerald argues.
“Despite having been juveniles at the time of the offense, they lose all the benefits and protections of the juvenile court system if they reach the age of majority prior to the initiation of proceedings,” Fitzgerald writes.
“They will be proceeded against in the retribution-oriented adult criminal court system where they are more likely to be incarcerated; have no protection of confidentiality; have limited, or no access, to rehabilitative programming and treatment; and, if determined to have committed the offense, will be found ‘guilty’ of a crime, rather than merely ‘delinquent.’”
Understanding Adolescent Behavior
Juvenile court systems exist now because of a general understanding that children and youth are less culpable or, at least, are impacted by unique circumstances that separate them from adult offenders and should keep them out of adult criminal court.
- Fitzgerald points to four developmental differences between adolescents and adults that she argues should be considered when setting juvenile jurisdiction:
- Teenagers generate higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can cognitively reward seeking out new experiences and sensations, even risky ones. Increased dopamine levels make risky behavior more appealing than safer ones;
- The prefrontal cortex controls cognitive analysis, abstract thought, and social behavior – the source of a person’s “good judgment.” In adolescents, it isn’t fully developed, leaving them at a disadvantage for rational decision making compared to adults;
- Adolescent brains are constantly going through a process called myelination, where casing forms around nerves to speed up and stabilize neural transmissions. Teens can’t appropriately plan, weigh costs and benefits, or respond to inhibitions until that process is complete; and .
- Through late adolescence, cortical and subcortical neural connections are still growing and, without fully formed neural connections, young people are less able to regulate or control their emotions and impulses.
Fitzgerald guides the reader through a history of the juvenile courts and relevant legal milestones, highlighting in particular where the Supreme Court has landed on similar issues.
In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Supreme Court banned life without parole sentences for juveniles charged with any crime but homicide. The ruling cited developments in psychology and brain science [that] show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.
The justices held “that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s moral culpability and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his deficiencies will be reformed,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Mandatory Life for Juveniles Banned
In 2012, the courts expanded on that holding in Miller v. Alabama by banning mandatory, default life sentences for juvenile offenders under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, referencing the “incompetencies associated with youth.”
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” the justices wrote in their majority opinion in Miller.
And so, on the federal level, Fitzgerald argues, the Supreme Court has already acknowledged the features of young offenders that should prevent promoting their cases up to adult criminal court just because they ‘aged out’ of juvenile jurisdiction in their state before legal proceedings began.
“Juvenile justice scholars, advocates, and stakeholders can no longer afford to ignore the patently unfair denial of juvenile offenders’ access to the juvenile court system merely because they have reached the age of majority prior to the institution of legal proceedings,” Fitzgerald writes.
Ultimately, her study recommends one significant change reformers must make: update state laws.
“Fortunately, there is a simple solution,” said Fitzgerald. “Because the jurisdiction of juvenile courts is conferred by statute, state legislatures have the power to change the jurisdictional statutes to address issues and inequities.”
The essay can be downloaded here.
Audrey Nielsen is a TCR contributing writer.