California Alliance - Youth & Community Justice

Treat Kids as Kids

Recent developments in law and science affirm what we have long known:

Young people are not miniature adults. Since 2010, the United States Supreme Court has reiterated this common sense conclusion in three separate cases, all of which rejected the application of an adult standard to youth who transgress the law.
(Graham v. Florida, 2010; JDB. v. North Carolina, 2011; and Miller v. Alabama, 2012).

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The juvenile justice system was indeed founded more than a century ago on the premise that children require a different system to effectively hold them accountable and to redirect them from crime. In 1899, the nation’s first "juvenile court" was created in Chicago specifically to separate transgressing youth from the adult criminal justice system, and to create a more rehabilitative system for young people (Deitch, Barstow, Luckens, & Reyna, 2009; American Bar Association, n.d.).

But since the creation of the juvenile court, policies and practices that deviate from the original rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system have proliferated. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by a wave of efforts in many states to return youth to the punitive adult system (Addison & Addie, 2012; Fagan & Liberman, 2007). From 1990 to 2004, the number of youth held nationwide in adult jails and prisons increased by 208 percent (Fagan, 2008).

The practice of prosecuting youth in the adult system is not only ineffective, it is
harmful – to the youth who need positive and ageappropriate redirection, and to society.


Adolescent Development and Youth Justice

Research consistently finds that treating youthful offenders as adults is inappropriate, detrimental to their development, and ineffective as a deterrent to crime (Peerman, Daugherty, Hoornstra, & Beydler, 2014; Redding, 2010). Recent studies have shown that adolescents experience significant psychological change and brain development that affect their ability to react appropriately to certain situations (Arya, Ryan, Sandoval, & Kudma, 2007; Scott & Steinberg, 2008a). While intellectually similar to adults, adolescents are more likely to act impulsively, more susceptible to peer influence, and are prone to risky experimentation as a part of their identity formation. Teenage impulsiveness and experimentation can lead to negative and sometimes criminal behaviors that do not necessarily reflect deficiencies of character, but rather their stage of development (Scott & Steinberg, 2008a).