Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried As Adults?

Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried As Adults?
Based on research by Laurence Steinberg

Click here to see other JCPR projects authored by Laurence Steinberg.

ince the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States has formally recognized a distinction between adult and juvenile offenders. The juvenile court was envisioned more as a surrogate parent than a prosecutor. The court was less adversarial, a personal rapport between the judge and the youth was encouraged, and rehabilitation was stressed over incarceration. In short, character and development rather than guilt or innocence have been the principles guiding the juvenile court.
Today, "adult time for adult crime" threatens to usurp the initial intent of the juvenile court. The proportion of juveniles prosecuted as adults is growing. Estimates are that more than 200,000 individuals under the age of 18 are prosecuted in criminal court each year, and large numbers of cases (about one-third) are for nonviolent offenses such as burglary or drug charges. Black and Hispanic offenders are more likely than white offenders to be transferred to adult court, even when they have committed the same crime.
The decision of when to try a youth as an adult often focuses on the seriousness and harmfulness of the offense, independent of the age or maturity of the offender. Adult time for adult crime says nothing about the age of the offender except that it ought to be considered irrelevant. Laurence Steinberg argues in a recent Joint Center for Poverty Research working paper that ignoring age entirely in decisions concerning adjudications and sentencing is like trying to ignore an elephant that has wandered into the courtroom.
Age does matter, and a developmental perspective is needed to inform decisions about how and at what points in the legal process age should be taken into account. Steinberg suggests replacing the current youth versus adult dichotomy used in the courts with three categories: youth (under age 13), juveniles (13-16), and adults (older than 16).

Competence to Stand Trial

At various points in the court process–in particular, determining competence to stand trial and determining culpability and its relationship to sentencing–questions of age and development should apply. Competence to stand trial is presumed among adult defendants unless they suffer from a serious mental illness or substantial mental retardation. Yet, even absent mental illness, youth may lack sufficient competence to stand trial; they may be incapable of understanding the legal process, and, thus, be unable to adequately defend themselves.
Two specific competencies are needed to be tried in criminal court. The individual must be competent to assist counsel, and the individual must be able to make decisions about waiving rights, entering pleas, and so forth, commonly known as "decisional competence." In order to demonstrate these competencies, youth must be able to engage in hypothetical thinking and logical decision-making, be able to demonstrate reliable episodic memory, and extend thinking into the future in order to envision the consequences of pleas, for example. They must also be able to understand and articulate their own motives and psychological state. These abilities emerge at different ages.
It would be highly unlikely that a youth under age 13 would be able to satisfy all of these criteria. Youth over 16, on the other hand, would likely be able to meet the criteria. Between the ages of 13 and 16 lies a gray area; some youth will be able to stand trial and others will not. Each individual in this age span, therefore, should be evaluated independently.
It is unclear at what age individuals have sufficient understanding of the ramifications of the adversarial process and the different vested interests of the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. But the ways we interpret and apply laws should rightfully vary when a case involves a defendant whose understanding of the law is limited by intellectual immaturity or whose judgment is impaired by emotional immaturity.

Culpability and Sentencing

This three-category age breakdown, Steinberg argues, should apply to issues of culpability and sentencing as well. From a developmental perspective, a typical nine-year-old child can form criminal intent and appreciate the wrongfulness of an action. However, age as a mitigating factor in the context of sentencing is a more complex issue. The adult justice system presumes that defendants who are found guilty are responsible for their own actions and should be held accountable and punished accordingly. Historically, those who are guilty but less responsible for their actions receive proportionately less punishment.
However, one key factor in determining culpability is judgment–the ability to control one’s impulses and foresee consequences, to be able to face the pressure from others to violate the law, or to extricate oneself from risky situations. (The other factors in culpability are level of responsibility, accountability, blameworthiness, and punishability). Few individuals under age 12 are able to demonstrate adult-like judgment. Thus, even though youth by age 9 know the difference between right and wrong, the vast majority of those younger than age 13 lack certain intellectual capabilities required to hold them fully accountable for their actions under certain conditions. Such situations include those in which logical decision-making is required, where consequences are not immediately apparent and require foresight, and situations in which sound judgment may be compromised by, for example, strong peer pressure.
Therefore, owing to the relative immaturity of minors, it may be justified to view them as less blameworthy than adults for committing the very same crime. The argument for keeping juveniles in the juvenile system is that rehabilitation is a more reasonable disposition than punishment for a less than fully accountable juvenile.
On the other hand, those over age 16 are likely to possess the capability to exercise good judgment, even under difficult circumstances. Thus, while pressure from one’s friends to violate the law may be a reasonable mitigating factor in the case of a 12-year-old, it is unlikely to be so in the case of a 17-year-old. And again, between the ages of 12 and 17, individual assessment is necessary.

Challenges in Implementing a Developmental Perspective

Using information about normal and atypical development to inform legal and judicial decision-making is difficult because development tends to be gradual and highly variable among individuals of the same age, especially in early and middle adolescence. The current legal dichotomy of youth versus adult fails to capture this variability. To be true to what we know about development, fair policies toward juvenile offenders must be able to accommodate this variability. One way to do this is to ensure that judges have solid information on child and adolescent development and the flexibility to use this information when making decisions about youngsters’ fates, which may have life-long consequences. Developmental psychologists can help with the facts. As for the flexibility, we can only appeal to the wisdom of policymakers.

Laurence Steinberg is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University and is currently director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. His research has focused on a range of topics in the study of contemporary adolescence, including parent-adolescent relationships, adolescent employment, high school reform, and juvenile justice.

The working paper is available on the JCPR website at:

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Crime Over the Life Course
By John Laub

hy, and when, do most juvenile delinquents stop offending? Or are some delinquents destined to become persistent criminals as adults? These are important questions for criminological theory, research, and public policy. Yet, examing behavioral change within individuals over the full life span is virtually uncharted territory in criminology and the social sciences.
I describe an ongoing research project focusing on antisocial behavior and crime over the life course. Since 1987, with my colleague, Robert Sampson, I have been using a unique data archive–the Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency study and subsequent follow-ups, conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of the Harvard Law School–to understand continuity and change in criminal offending across the life span (see Sampson & Laub, 1993).
The Gluecks' study was initiated in 1940 with a sample of 500 delinquents and 500 nondelinquents (Glueck & Glueck, 1950). The Gluecks sought to answer an enduring question in the study of delinquency: what factors differentiate boys reared in poor neighborhoods who become serious and persistent delinquents from boys reared in the same neighborhoods who do not become delinquent or antisocial?
A unique aspect of the Unraveling study was the matching design, whereby the 500 delinquents and 500 nondelinquents were matched case-by-case on age (average age 14), ethnicity (all white ethnics–mainly, Irish, Italian, and English), intelligence (mean IQ 92), and neighborhood socioeconomic status (disadvantaged poor neighborhoods).
The original sample of delinquent and nondelinquents was followed up at age 25 and again at age 32. This latter data collection effort took place from 1949 to 1965 (Glueck & Glueck, 1968).
The data were given to the Harvard Law School Library by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck in 1972 when they retired. The 50-plus cartons of data laid dormant in the basement of the Harvard Law School until I inadvertently stumbled across them in 1987. From 1988 to 1994, with support from the National Institute of Justice, among others, we recoded, computerized, and reanalyzed the longitudinal data, up to age 32. (See Sampson & Laub, 1993, for details.)
In 1994, with financial support from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, we initiated a new follow-up study of the original delinquents from the Gluecks’ study. When our follow-up study was launched, the oldest subject was 70 years old and the youngest was 62. Our follow-up study included three major components: collecting criminal records, both at the state and national levels; collecting death records, both at the state and national levels; and locating and re-interviewing a subset of the delinquent subjects.
This is the only criminological study in the world that contains data from birth and early childhood to age 70 for such a large group of serious, persistent juvenile offenders. These data can address several issues concerning crime over the life course. Of particular interest is the continuity and change in behavior over time.

The Relationship between Juvenile Delinquency and Adult Crime

We find from the Gluecks' data that delinquency and other forms of antisocial conduct in childhood are strongly related to adult crime and drug and alcohol abuse. Moreover, serious delinquency in adolescence reverberates in other areas, such as school, work, and family life. For example, delinquents were far less likely than nondelinquents to finish high school and were much more likely to be unemployed, receive welfare, and experience separation or divorce as adults (Sampson & Laub, 1993).
However, although there is a link between juvenile delinquency and adult crime, many of the delinquents in our follow-up study amended their behavior in adulthood. Individual change is not only possible, but appears to occur quite frequently. Therefore, although studies show that antisocial behavior in children is one of the best predictors of antisocial behavior in adults, most antisocial children do not become antisocial as adults (see, e.g., Robins, 1966). With prospective studies such as the Glueck data set, such transformations are more evident than in retrospective studies. The latter cloud the correspondence between juvenile delinquency and adult crime because they start with a group of adult offenders and subsequently overlook juvenile offenders who cease offending as adults.
With our long-term data, we examined longitudinal patterns of offending by age at the individual level. We found that for those men who survived to age 50, 24% had no arrests for predatory crime (crimes of violence and property) after age 17 (6% had no arrests for total crime); 48% had no arrests for predatory crime after age 25 (19% for total crime); 60% had no arrests for predatory crime after age 31 (33% for total crime); and 79% had no arrests for predatory crime after age 40 (57% for total crime). In short, desistance from crime is the norm and most, if not all, serious delinquents desist from crime.

Why Offenders Stop Offending

In previous research, we examined the idea that salient life events and social ties in adulthood can counteract, at least to some extent, the trajectories of early child development. We found that, up to age 32, job stability and marital attachment in adulthood are significantly related to changes in adult crime; the stronger the adult ties to work and family, the less crime and deviance among both delinquent and nondelinquent youth (Sampson & Laub, 1993).
A key component of our long-term follow-up study is the life-history interviews with 52 men as they approached age 70. Drawing on the men’s own words is especially helpful in "unpacking" the processes of desistance. I highlight some findings from our in-depth narratives for the group of men who have turned away from crime.
A central element in the desistance process is the "knifing off" of individuals from their immediate environment and offering them a new script for the future. Institutions such as the military have this knifing-off potential, as does marriage, although the knifing-off effect of marriage may not be as dramatic. Another form of knifing off is residential change, which often accompanies marriage.

One former delinquent (age 69) recounted:

I'd say the turning point was, number one, the Army. You get into an outfit, you had a sense of belonging, you made your friends. I think I became a pretty good judge of character. In the Army, you met some good ones, you met some foul balls. Then I met the wife. I'd say probably that would be the turning point. Got married, then naturally, kids come. So now you got to get a better job, you got to make more money. And that's how I got to the Navy Yard and tried to improve myself.

Another component in the desistance process is gaining structure in life. The men who desisted from crime shared a daily routine that provided both structure and meaningful activity. Structure often led the men to disassociate from delinquent peers, a major factor in abandoning crime (see Warr, 1998). Marriage has the potential to radically change routine activities, especially with regard to one's peer group. Wives, for example, may limit the number of nights men can "hang with the guys."
As one wife of a former delinquent said, "It is not how many beers you have, it’s who you drink with." Her husband, Bob, was a serious delinquent and he served time as a young adult for armed robbery. He was arrested nine times as a juvenile and six times as an adult and he was incarcerated for 7.5 years. Despite his serious involvement in crime and a high score on our childhood risk factor scale, Bob turned his life around, and it appears that his marriage at age 23 was the primary source of his desistance.
What is also notable in the desistance process is human agency. A vital feature is that personal conceptions about the past and future are apparently transformed as these men maneuver through the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As we observed in our life-history narratives, the men who desist seem to have acquired a degree of maturity by taking on family and work responsibilities. They forged new commitments, made a fresh start, and found new direction and meaning in life. These commitments were not necessarily made consciously or deliberately, but rather were "by default" (Becker, 1960, p. 38). It appears that involvement in institutions such as work and marriage reorders short-term situational inducements to crime and, over time, redirects long-term commitments to conformity. It seems that men who desisted changed their identity as well, and this, in turn, affected their outlook and sense of maturity and responsibility.
What is also striking from our life histories is that there appears to be no major differences in the process of desistance for nonviolent and violent juvenile offenders. This finding is consistent with research showing that violent offenders have the same background characteristics as frequent, but nonviolent, offenders (see Farrington, 1990; Capaldi & Patterson, 1996). Moreover, the lessons we learned about desistance from the life histories are also consistent with the research on drug and alcohol relapse (see Vaillant, 1988).

Policy Implications

What themes emerge from this research that are important for policymakers? Although I have followed the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox my entire life, I want to end on a hopeful and optimistic note about the capacity for change.
Based on our research and others, it appears that youth problems–delinquency, substance abuse, violence, dropping out, teen pregnancy–often share common risk characteristics. Moreover, these "packages of problems" often extend into adulthood (Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Intervention strategies should consider a broad array of antisocial, criminal, and deviant behaviors, and not just limit the focus to one subgroup or crime type. Comprehensive strategies that focus on a wider range of concurrent problem behaviors are needed. As David Farrington (1990, p. 110) has argued, "Because of the link between crime and numerous other social problems, any measure that succeeds in reducing crime will probably have benefits that go far beyond this. Early prevention efforts that reduce crime will probably also reduce alcohol abuse, drunk driving, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and family violence, and probably also school failure, unemployment, marital disharmony, and divorce."
Despite these continuities, many offenders change their behavior over time. From our research, it is clear that understanding the factors that lead to desistance from crime is important in shaping interventions that reduce recidivism. This moves the field away from the narrow and restricted idea that prevention strategies administered early on in life are the only feasible strategies to reduce criminal behavior.
Although there are multiple pathways to desistance, there appears to be some important general processes or mechanisms of desistance at work. The four significant factors that we have found in our follow-up study are marriage and spouses, the military, work, and neighborhood change. What appears to be important about these processes is that they all involve, to varying degrees, the following items: a knifing off of the past from the present; new situations that provide both supervision and monitoring as well as new opportunities of social support and growth; and new situations that provide the opportunity for transforming identity–a process that one author has referred to as "movement from a hell-raiser to a family man" (Hill, 1971). Prevention of crime must therefore be a policy at all times and at all stages of life.


Becker, Howard S. 1960. "Notes on the Concept of Commitment." American Journal of Sociology 66:32-40.

Cairns, Robert B., and Beverly D. Cairns. 1994. Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in Our Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Capaldi, Deborah M., and Gerald R. Patterson. 1996. "Can Violent Offenders be Distinguished from Frequent Offenders: Prediction from Childhood to Adolescence." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 33:206-231.

Farrington, David P. 1990. "Implications of Criminal Career Research for the Prevention of Offending." Journal of Adolescence 13:93-113.

--------. 1991. "Childhood Aggression and Adult Violence: Early Precursors and Later Life Outcomes." In The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression, edited by Daniel J. Pepler and Kenneth H. Rubin. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 5-29.

Glueck, Sheldon, and Eleanor Glueck. 1950. Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency. New York: Commonwealth Fund.

--------. 1968. Delinquents and Nondelinquents in Perspective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hill, Thomas W. 1971. "From Hell-raiser to Family Man." In Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, edited by J.P. Spradley and D.W. McCurdy. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., pp. 186-200

Robins, Lee N. 1966. Deviant Children Grown Up. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

Sampson, Robert J., and John H. Laub. 1993. Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vaillant, George E. 1988. "What Can Long-term Follow-up Teach Us about Relapse and Prevention of Relapse in Addiction?" British Journal of Addiction 83:1147-1157.

Warr, Mark. 1998. "Life-course Transitions and Desistance from Crime." Criminology 36:183-215.

John H. Laub is Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also a visiting fellow at the Henry A. Murray Research Center, Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard University. His areas of research include crime and deviance over the life course, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, and the history of criminology. He has published widely including most recently Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life, with Robert Sampson, Harvard University Press. This article was derived from a Congressional Research Briefing on "Juvenile Crime: Causes and Consequences," sponsored by Senators Joseph R. Biden and Arlen Specter JCPR, Washington, D.C., January 19, 2000. Please direct all correspondence to John H. Laub, Department of Criminology, 2220 LeFrak Hall, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, voice: 301-405-8070, fax: 301-405-4733, and e-mail:

1 comment:

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