Juvenile justice has become an increasingly debated and prominent issue, as more and more teenagers are doing time alongside adults in prison. Over time, our society has adopted a harsher view on crimes committed by youth. And what’s more, in most states, juvenile court judges can transfer cases over to criminal court, making it easier to try children as adults.
In my latest Mia Quinn novel, “A Deadly Business,” the issue of trying kids as adults arises when three teenage boys drop a shopping cart off a pedestrian bridge, sending an innocent woman into a coma. Mia must decide whether to try the boys as juveniles or adults, taking into account the life-threatening injuries of the victim as well as the boys’ troubled backgrounds. For Mia, this decision is a real struggle because she knows it could ruin three young lives.
Deciding to try a child criminally versus focusing on rehabilitation through the juvenile system is not just a dilemma for Mia, though, it is also a decision that frequently plagues the legal world. The gravity of determining whether to try a young person as an adult versus as a juvenile may often get clouded by how heinous a crime is or how terrible a kid may seem. But we can’t forget what’s at stake. One route gives a child the opportunity to rehabilitate and makes room for the fact that many young people cannot appreciate the consequences of their actions, while the other route is likely to harden a child irreparably. In light of how momentous these decisions are, serious consideration and discussion on how youth should be tried are necessary.
To learn more, I spoke with Jessica Sandoval, the Vice President and Deputy Director for the Campaign for Youth Justice. As a founding staff member of the organization, which is dedicated to ending the practice of sentencing youth under 18 in adult criminal court, Jessica developed the Campaign’s communications infrastructure, has led multiple initiatives engaging those who oppose prosecuting youth as adults, and currently develops evaluating systems for effective strategies and strategic partnerships. She has led and provided program support for many different juvenile justice organizations, including the Gang Rescue and Support Project, the Colorado Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council, and the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education and Families. For more than 20 years, Jessica’s career has been dedicated to advocating for juvenile justice.
Here, I’ve asked Jessica several questions about how the juvenile justice system has been successful, the ways in which it can be improved, and what we can expect to see moving forward:
1. Lis Wiehl: How did you become interested in the issue of juvenile justice?
Jessica Sandoval: As a young person I was working on youth issues and serving as a commissioner on my state advisory group for juvenile justice. It really spoke to me on a personal level. I decided to pursue it professionally and through my education.
2. LW: Drawing the line between a child and adult is controversial and must be weighed carefully- what factors go into analyzing a child’s judgment and level of development?
JS: We have relied heavily on the research in this area. We know that the line that distinguishes youth from adults is 18, but really only for criminal purposes does it blur the line. Insurance companies insure anyone under 25 at a higher rate, because they know the risks involved for those under 25. These types of mitigating factors should be considered by the court. These include: the age at the time of the offense, immaturity, ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of the conduct, intellectual capacity, prior record, mental health, familial or peer pressure exerted upon the defendant, and likelihood that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation in confinement.
3. LW: How do you think factors such as family background, criminal records, developmental issues, etc. should be weighed in serious crimes committed by children?
JS: I think that those factors don’t play enough into the considerations for youth. Please see above answer.
4. LW: Has the juvenile justice system been successful in rehabilitating and integrating children back into society? How could these efforts be improved?
JS: The juvenile justice system has been a failing system and failing our children and in many cases the pipeline to prison. There are some improvements and a continued focus on reform, but anything that can be done in a facility can be done in the community, but better.
5. LW: The Internet has become an increasingly influential force in violent crimes, among both children and adults (such as the recent Slenderman case in Wisconsin). How can the Internet and anti-cyberbullying efforts employ strategies to decrease the violent and criminal acts committed by children?
JS: I’m not familiar with the case you mention, however it is impossible to criminalize and legislate these efforts. The issue needs to be analyzed to determine the best practices to address the issue.
6. LW: How do you think juvenile justice policy could be improved?
JS: We know what works and what doesn’t, so as long as we continue to do what we know doesn’t work, we will see little to no improvement.
7. LW: What is the biggest challenge the system faces going forward?
JS: Its own demise. We will need to address the failures and remove most kids from confinement. The fact that the system still hog-ties and pepper sprays kids shows that we have a major failure on our hands.