Say You’re Sorry: Remorse in Juvenile Law

The difference between the juvenile and adult justice systems is drastic in most states. The adult justice system focuses primarily on punishment when serious crimes are involved whereas the juvenile justice system typically places a heavier emphasis on rehabilitation.

In response to a youth crime wave, Colorado passed a law in 1993 which allowed prosecutors to unilaterally decide whether to prosecute juveniles as adults. Colorado was part of a national trend of states adopting so-called “direct file” systems to address youth violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a report concluding that these direct file systems are counterproductive to addressing youth crime because youths prosecuted as adults are far more likely to reoffend. It has proven difficult for lawmakers in Colorado and across the country to repeal these direct file systems however because lawmakers do not want to appear “soft on crime.”

The determination of whether a child will be prosecuted as an adult relies on a variety of factors including whether the child feels remorse for his or her alleged crimes. This method of evaluating juvenile offenders may be misplaced according to some psychiatrists and researchers. The area of the brain which controls emotions is not fully developed until people reach their early 20s and one forensic psychiatrist says that children do not develop a sense of remorse until around age six.

Progressing brain development is why teens typically have a hard time expressing their feelings or displaying remorse in court. Trauma can exacerbate these issues and cause a juvenile defendant to appear cold and unsympathetic.

“Many kids would realize, if remorse plays a big role in their sentencing, to simply say how sorry they are and try to appear remorseful,” the forensic psychiatrist said. “You have to ask yourself, when they don’t say that, what is going on with this kid? A comprehensive mental health assessment would help us understand.”

Emotional immaturity is another reason why juveniles can be difficult defendants. Children typically lack the requisite emotional ability to identify and portray a socially appropriate reaction to a situation. This is why children often do not appear remorseful at funerals, for example.

Many juvenile offenders also use denial as a defense mechanism against uncomfortable emotions. The lack of remorse in a juvenile offender is therefore more likely to be a telling indication of emotional immaturity, not a sign of a heartless offender that needs to be treated as an adult.

New studies into child psychology and juvenile crime statistics sparked a recent movement to keep more juveniles out of adult court. Utah and Washington are among the states that have provided easier ways for adult court judges to transfer children back to juvenile court, while other states remain hesitant to make the change.

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