In Just Mercy (2014), Bryan Stevenson, the head of advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), notes that a disproportionately large number of cases he comes across involve juvenile offenders, some of whom are children as young as fourteen. Stevenson gives a few reasons why some children not only often find themselves tried and sentenced as adults, but also victims of wrongful convictions.
One, most juvenile offenders wrongfully sentenced in America are either poor or minorities, or both. Many come from violent, abusive backgrounds, such as Trina Garnett, sentenced for culpable homicide when she was fourteen. Garnett had met unspeakable sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and had faced periods of homelessness by the time she was involved in the crime for which she was sentenced. Yet these factors were not considered at the time of her sentencing. Moreover, poor, abused children like Garnett do not have access to competent lawyers ready to fight for them, which makes them easy targets for sentencing. As Stevenson's mentor Steve Bright succinctly puts it,
Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.
Discrimination against racial minorities makes the issue even worse for black and brown children. Stevenson notes the case of a black child named George, who was tried for the murder of two white girls simply because he reported seeing them before they disappeared.
Secondly, the sustained media hysteria around “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s contributed for a long time to the belief that many juvenile offenders in the US were budding psychopaths that had to be jailed to keep the rest of the population safe. Based on the super-predator theory, many US states passed laws that enabled them to try, convict, and even execute children as adults. According to Stevenson,
Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.
By the time the super-predator theory was dismissed in 2001, Stevenson notes that it was already too late for children like Trina. When Stevenson met Trina for the first time, in 2014, she was fifty-two, having already spent thirty-eight years in jail.
Finally, the increased number of trials and convictions of juveniles takes place because, until recently, the justice system ignored some basic scientific truths about the difference between children’s and adults’ brains. These differences have been extensively documented by doctors, neurologists, and sociologists—yet the justice system, and to some extent public opinion, resolutely discounted them until a few years ago. For instance, it is proven that the adolescent brain is biologically weak at impulse control, forcing vulnerable teenagers to make rash, poorly thought-out decisions. In sentencing teenagers as adults, courts ignore this sociobiological component of their behavior.
Not only that: children’s behavior under pressure (such as during interrogation by hostile, intimidating police officers) is skittish and unpredictable, leading child after child to confess to a crime they may not have committed, simply to escape the questions bombarding them. In the case of children from poor backgrounds, who often don’t have a parent or lawyer to protect them during the interrogation process, such confessions become damning, leading to wrongful trials. Even during trials, vulnerable children also tend to offer conflicting testimonies, since they process trauma in a different way from adults. Often, children also exhibit magical thinking, which leads to varying accounts. When lawyers, judges, and juries preside over the trials of children without taking these mitigating factors into account, the number of wrongful convictions tends to rise.