Recent legislative reforms and judicial decisions may signal that states are beginning to scale back on “tough on crime” policies by changing how courts treat juveniles in the criminal justice system. Tough on crime policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s increased the number of juveniles charged as adults—viewing them not as children or delinquents but as fully formed criminals. But while juveniles may not be allowed to vote or drink alcohol, they can be sentenced to spend almost their entire lives in prison.
In 2018, Congress passed changes to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA), which now requires states to meet standards for placing juveniles in the criminal justice system, if the states want to receive federal funding through the JJRA. Among these standards, over the next three years every state must ensure juveniles are removed from adult jails while awaiting trial. Additionally, states must collect, analyze, and publish racial and ethnic data of the population of incarcerated juveniles and establish a plan to address racial disparities in adult prisons. Individuals are considered juveniles if they are under the age of 18.
Other current laws create racial and geographical disparities in sentencing. A report published by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 found that more juveniles are tried as adults in urban areas as opposed to rural or suburban, and that in the 75 largest counties in the U.S., two thirds of juveniles tried and sentenced as adults were racial minorities. Furthermore, juveniles in adult prisons are more likely to experience sexual assault, violence, and are more likely to reoffend once released compared to those sentenced to juvenile detention centers, according to a 2007 CDC report.
Before the “tough on crime” era, the juvenile corrections system was aimed at rehabilitating juvenile offenders instead of incarcerating them. The goal was to reform juvenile offenders so that they would not grow up to become adult offenders. Judges had wider discretion to tailor a sentence to the particular juvenile offender, instead of just their offense.
However, during the “tough on crime” era, legislatures began focusing more on the offense committed, rather than the offender. Politicians began instituting mandatory sentences and abolishing parole for all convicted offenders, regardless of age. As a result, children as young as 13 could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or even sentenced to capital punishment.
Today, when juveniles are charged as adult criminals, they can be sent to adult prisons, given harsher sentences, and have adult criminal records that prevent them from gaining employment and student financial aid. State laws vary on who gets to decide to charge juveniles as adults. Some have laws that require types of cases to be filed in juvenile or adult criminal court, sometimes taking into account the offender’s age or the offense committed.
For example, in 2014 nine states including Texas and Louisiana required all juveniles over the age of 16 to be tried as adults. Prosecutors and judges also often have discretion to file charges either in juvenile or adult courts.
Supreme Court Precedents
In the last 15 years, three U.S. Supreme Court cases limited the harshest juvenile sentencing policies: Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama. In these cases, the Court decided that the 8th Amendment protection against Cruel and Unusual Punishment requires that juveniles be treated differently than adults in sentencing.
In 2005, the Court held in Roper that juveniles could not be sentenced to death. The 17-year-old defendant had been convicted of first-degree murder in Missouri, where he broke into the victim’s home, and then kidnapped and drowned her. He was sentenced to death but appealed, arguing that it was cruel and unusual to sentence juveniles to death because juveniles have diminished mental capacity compared to adults.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion and reasoned that three factors distinguished juveniles from adults: lack of maturity, increased vulnerability to environmental influences, and likelihood of reform. He cited neurological research showing that juveniles’ prefrontal cortex and limbic systems are underdeveloped, making them more impulsive and reckless than adults. Additionally, juveniles are more vulnerable to negative peer and family influences. These factors “both lessened a child’s moral culpability and enhanced the prospect that…those deficiencies will be reformed.”
In 2010, Graham expanded on that argument to prohibit mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes. A 17-year-old in Florida was found guilty of attempted robbery and, incidentally, violating the terms of his probation because he had previously been arrested for attempted robbery. The trial judge sentenced him to life in prison and, since Florida had abolished parole, the defendant appealed arguing that life without parole was essentially the same as a death sentence.
In the opinion, Justice Kennedy argued that the 8th Amendment required proportionality in sentencing. As such, a judge is required to take into account the individual circumstances of the juvenile offender, not just the crime committed. In short, juveniles who did not kill or intend to kill are less blameworthy for their crime than an adult would be and, therefore, they cannot be held to the same extreme standards.
Two years later, in Miller, the Court went a step further and decided it is unconstitutional to require juveniles be sentenced to life in prison for any offense if they are not given a meaningful opportunity for release. Two separate cases, one in Alabama and one in Arkansas, involved 14 year olds convicted of murder. One aided and abetted a robbery in which a cashier was killed and the other killed his mother’s drug dealer. Both states had laws that required anyone convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion, stating that because the sentencing judges did not have the discretion to impose a different punishment, the sentences were unconstitutional. The Court argued the issue with the sentences was that “state law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth…along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence…more appropriate.”
These cases were successful in curbing the harshest punishments for juveniles and affirming that juvenile offenders are different than adults convicted of similar crimes. However, state legislatures still have wide discretion to impose harsh sentences that fall just short of life in prison. For example, in Florida the mandatory minimum for first degree murder is still 40 years in prison until the offender is eligible for release.
Reforms such as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act are a step in the right direction to reforming the juvenile system, but it is ultimately still up to the states to treat children differently in sentencing. If states want to receive federal grant funding through the JJRA, they have to implement the new standards. Otherwise, it may take more than money to compel states to treat juveniles as children instead of criminals.