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Critical Essay on Juveniles Being Tried as Adults

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Age is just a number. This is a saying that has transpired through time, taking on new meanings every time it is used. It has gone from describing an age difference in a relationship to justifying actions where age is involved. But for some things, age is not just a number. In fact, age may be the biggest ally someone has against the death penalty. But how does one decide how age is used within our systems? In the juvenile justice system, age is the deciding factor in everything. It decides whether one can be tried in adult court and it influences the types of sentences a juvenile can receive. It is also involved in the consent to sex and marriage as well. Age is an important aspect of the justice system and can greatly influence decisions within it. But there is a problem with this. If age is the line between being tried as a juvenile or an adult, how does one know what age is appropriate for the line to rest on? It seems each state and jurisdiction has its own idea of where that line rests. It is inconsistent and unhelpful. One solid set of ages needs to be decided on because, with the way it is now, there are a lot of issues with the public seeing juveniles tried as adults, even when they are not considered to be so in any other part of the law. With the support of articles such as “An Age of Reason: Paradoxes in the U.S. legal construction of Adulthood” by Laurie Schaffner and “Good, Bad and Wrongful Juvenile Sex: Rethinking the Use of Statutory Rape Laws Against the Protected Class” by Dr. Anna High, one can conclude that there does need to be a set standard of ages for the juvenile justice system and a crystal-clear understanding of where the lines between juvenile and adulthood are drawn.

When it comes to sex and marriage, over the years our views have changed. Once it was okay for a 12-year-old girl to marry a man in his forties, however now that is not seen as proper. In fact, many view marriage before the age of 18 as wrong and impermissible. From a culture that saw sex before marriage as ungodly but would marry off their children before the age of 16 to one that idolizes one-night stands and sex but believes it is socially unacceptable to marry under the age of 18 is a massive change. Our society has switched itself around. Now we have something that prevents the old way from happening. Something called statutory rape, which is sex with a minor under the age of 16 with less than 3 years of age difference. Anything greater than a 3-year difference is counted as rape. It also includes minors having sex together. But over the years there has been quite a debate on what the guidelines for statutory rape should be. In the article “Good, Bad and Wrongful Juvenile Sex: Rethinking the Use of Statutory Rape Laws Against the Protected Class” by Dr. Anna High, she approaches this debate. High questions about whether the law can criminalize the act of sex between two minors because they are the class that the law is trying to protect. Because of the enhancements in technology and media, minors are introduced to sexuality earlier in their lives, but the law and society still recognize them as vulnerable and immature. High states that even though the law has evolved to have some give, such as the “Romeo and Juliet” laws, not all statutory rape laws have evolved to the point that no minors are committing a crime even though consent was present. High suggests that there are two different forms of statutory rape among minors: “proceedings against both minors under the theory that each is both victim and offender in relation to the same act; or one-sided proceedings against the “true offender” (High 790). But according to the High, neither one of them is accurate. She states that it is illogical to think that minors can victimize each other. She goes on to argue that to charge based on the “true offender” notion would give discriminatory enforcement and over-criminalization of adolescent sex a potential rise. So, neither of these systems works. High concludes by discussing how to correctly reformulate the legal response to adolescent sex, stating that “sex abuse statutes may need to be (1) strengthened to ensure that fault-based rape laws adequately target coercive but non-forcible sex among juveniles, and (2) supplemented with juvenile- specific offenses targeting problematic sexual behavior warranting reformative intervention” (High 790). High believes that by targeting these two main ideas one can find a way to successfully enforce statutory rape among minors. Dr. High is not the only one to believe there is a problem with the statutory rape law. In the article “Recasting Vagueness: The Case of Teen Sex Statutes” by Cynthia Godsoe, she also discusses the question of which minor is the offender and which is the victim of underage sex. Godsoe states that even though sex among minors is illegal in all 50 states, there is no set of guidelines for trying them, and it is over-criminalized because of this. But unlike High, Godsoe argues for the complete decriminalization of peer statutory rape, stating that “In so doing, it posits a new category of offender-less harms—societal problems for which no one should be punished” (Godsoe 186). She does not agree that it is a crime and that the laws we have now are flawed and incompetent. Both High and Godsoe argue that age should not be a factor in sex among minors and by doing so it over-criminalizes the act of sex and blurs the lines within the juvenile justice system and what statutory rape really is.

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Another branch within the juvenile system where age is a major component is the border between the juvenile courts and the adult courts. How does one decide where that line is? The problem the system has is no one really knows how to answer that question, so it is different within the states and levels of jurisdiction. But for something such as this, a wider spread final decision needs to be made to stabilize the issues that have arisen because of this blurry line. In the article “An Age of Reason: Paradoxes in the U.S. Legal Construction of Adulthood” by Laurie Schaffner, she discusses the criteria a juvenile might have to be considered for an adult trial. She also discusses many of the different laws and practices a prosecutor or judge looks at before determining whether the juvenile should be tried in an adult court. Schaffner states that “we live in a postmodern era. “Age” is no longer necessarily a handy measure of maturity. Experiences are relative and vary, more than that they are linearly developmental” (Schaffner 224). Schaffner claims that even though age might have been a factor decades ago in deciding whether a juvenile can be processed in an adult court, that is no longer the case. It is now up to the courts to determine who meets the criteria of going to adult court, which leaves citizens in the unknown of where that line is. Schaffner may not readily disagree with this notion, but in Patrick McCormick’s article “Fit to Be Tried?”, it is clear he does not agree with the idea that juveniles can be tried as adults. McCormick states that even though children have been tried as adults since the beginning of the juvenile court system, for the past century the justice system has been more focused on rehabilitating juvenile delinquents. He argues that “More than a century after the first juvenile court was founded in Chicago, we have even more reason to know that adolescents are not small adults, and should not be treated or punished as if they were” (McCormick 18). McCormick believes that it is unlawful to treat a juvenile, who is not seen in the eyes of the law as an adult on any other topic as if they could comprehend the punishment and wrongdoing of the action they committed. While McCormick is strongly against trying juveniles as adults, he does not clearly state the other side’s view. In the article “Juveniles Tried as Adults: The Age of The Juvenile Matters” by Jaclyn Semple and William Woody, they focus their research on the ages that adult courts are more likely to convict a harsher penalty. They found that juveniles between the ages of 13 and 15 received a lesser conviction than a juvenile between 17 and 21. By examining the jury decisions on juvenile cases, Semple and Woody hoped to gain insight on which way a jury generally leans, and whether age is a factor. They found that the age of the defendant did not significantly affect the conviction decision, but rather the sentencing. The authors concluded that “This study suggests that mock jurors struggle to appropriately conform to legal expectations in their evaluations of juvenile defendants tried as adults; despite legal guidelines, jurors differentiate between juveniles of different ages” (Semple and Woody 307). Age still affects a juvenile when they are put in an adult court, for many find it difficult to comprehend a 13-year-old can commit a murder and be counted as fully competent in doing so.

Age is something that affects everyone, on little scales and big ones. But it constricts minors the most. One must reach a certain age to achieve a privilege. It is something that is important within our society now. It defines what one may do and what one may not do. But for some cases, age is not clearly defined. In the juvenile justice system, it is clearly seen that age is something that is a cornerstone for this part of the law. But when it is not fully defined and boundaries are not clearly set, it is not hard to see why there are problems when it comes to things such as statutory rape among minors and juveniles being tried as adults. With this unknown blank attached to the back of these topics, frustrations can run high. The justice system must clearly set ages for topics such as these. Without doing so, it weakens the control and order it is supposed to provide. If the system were to set an age and hold firm to one set of rules with something such as the problems of statutory rape among minors, then it would no longer be over-criminalized. If one age were to be given to the states for trying a juvenile as an adult with justifiable reasons behind it, public backlash would decrease and community support would rise for the justice system. Leaving these problems undecided, brings about chaos and mistrust within the system. Age is not just a number, as clearly seen within the justice system, it is something that defines your rights and responsibilities. Setting solid age boundaries is not an issue, they can be accepted with time. Leaving the system the way it is, however, will continue to cause problems, and ultimately is why the juvenile justice system is not as successful as it could be.

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