The United States maintains a separate criminal justice system for juvenile offenders because it is near-universally recognized that children who commit minor offenses should not be subjected to the far harsher components of the adult criminal justice system. While there is no question that certain particularly heinous crimes, for example, murder and rape, committed by 16 or 17 year olds warrant consideration for handling through the adult system, it is inconceivable to many Americans that a 12 year old who commits burglary would be subjected to that same adult process.
It was in recognition of the vital distinctions between juveniles and adults that Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. This Act provided incentives to individual states to treat juvenile offenders in a system more appropriate for children whose crimes do not warrant the severity associated with the adult system. Passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act ensured that the United States criminal justice system did not run afoul of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s provision that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” [Emphasis added] Consistent with this constitutional intent is the Act’s “sight and sound” provision, which mandates that juvenile offenders – except in certain particularly egregious cases – are not to be incarcerated alongside adults.
The United States should and does maintain separate criminal justice systems for juveniles and adults because it is the humane approach. Again, courts will agree to treat juveniles as adults in cases involving particularly heinous crimes and juveniles who, while not legally adults, are certainly old enough to have reasonably known better than to commit such an act. Such cases are rare, however, relative to the overall number of crimes committed by juveniles. The designation of “18” as the age at which individuals transition from childhood to adult can be considered somewhat arbitrary, and criminal laws recognize that mental capacity can be more important indicator of how to treat a particular offender. On the whole, however, the existing juvenile justice system will be retained because, at the end of the day, there is no perfect solution and the current distinctions remain valid.