It is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial movements in the American justice system over the last twenty years: the push to have children who commit serious crimes be tried as adults. The belief that as time goes on and the perception that children just aren’t as innocent or as ignorant as they use to be that their actions should carry adult punishments if they are caught. Just like abortion or any other controversial topic, both sides argue passionately about their point of view and since states try crimes differently, you have this confusing and frustrating patchwork of rules in place. What may be grounds for trying a minor as an adult in Maine may not be the same standards for trying a minor as an adult in Ohio. Let’s take a look at several of the factors that juries and justice departments take into account when deciding if a child should be tried as an adult or not.
Obviously, the first thing that is taken into consideration is the crime that was committed. In almost all cases, children who are tried as adults are accused of murder or of similarly heinous crimes. The argument is that once a child reaches a certain age they know the difference between right and wrong just like an adult and they understand the difference between life and death. Others argue that children are far more emotional and impulsive than an adult and can act without completely thinking through what they are doing first.
Second, the mental capacity of the child is also usually taken into account. The few occasions when it isn’t, such as a recent case in the state of Texas when a child with diminished mental capacity was executed, caused so much national outrage that there is a very slim chance of an incident like that ever being repeated. If the child is suffering from a degree of mental retardation or some other similar condition, the child may still be tried like an adult, but his condition will often be considered during sentencing so that harsh penalties are not considered.
Historical precedent is often taken into account, as well. Texas has been a state that has tried many children as adults for various crimes in the last 20 years. When you state has a documented history of this type of practice, it can be much easier to cite prescient and justify the continuation. That is why so many states are hesitant to try even a single child as an adult since it opens the door for more such cases to be prosecuted in the future.
In the end, it is simply a judgment call among those looking to prosecute crime – did the child understand the repercussions of his or her actions when he or she took them. If, through analysis, interviews and investigations, the court decides that yes, the child understood, you can expect more and more children to be treated like adults.