Violent crime and teens: Culpable adults or developing juveniles?

Readers have no doubt heard about the most recent incident of school violence to make national news. The incident at a Pennsylvania high school earlier this week differs from other school violence cases in at least two ways.

The first is that the alleged attacker used a knife instead of guns, which is likely why fatalities were avoided. Second, the alleged attacker – a 16-year-old student of small physical stature – did not take his own life during the incident and will now face serious criminal charges. Whenever a teenager is accused of committing violent crime, there is one question that could significantly influence what happens to the defendant if convicted. That question is: Will the defendant be tried as a juvenile or as an adult?

The legal age of adulthood varies by state, but nearly every state puts the demarcation line at between 16 and 18 years old. But here in Utah as in other states, prosecutors may seek to try a juvenile as an adult if their crime is considered particularly severe (often involving violence).

The defendant in the school stabbing case is 16, but Pennsylvania law mandates that aggravated assault or attempted murder need to be tried in adult court if the defendant is 15 years of age or older. As such, he has been charged as an adult, but his defense attorney is seeking an exception that could allow him to be tried in the juvenile system.

To be clear, the classification of juvenile vs. adult is not a matter of lighter punishment for those tried as juveniles. Rather, it has to do with a number of complex issues regarding brain development, social development, culpability, criminal intent and capacity for rehabilitation.

Brain research has shown that teenagers often have difficulty controlling impulses, making decisions and predicting/understanding consequences. This includes consequences in terms of punishment but also in terms of how their actions will affect others.

Because each person develops at their own pace, the designation of “adulthood” is somewhat arbitrary. How can we truly know if a teen defendant’s brain has developed enough to hold him to the same standards to which we hold adults?

There are many other complicating factors here as well, not least of which is seeking justice for the dozens of students who were severely injured in the attack and likely also suffered psychological trauma.

However this case ultimately proceeds, it needs to be approached with caution and considerable contemplation.

Source: USA Today, “High school stabbing suspect must be charged as adult,” Donna Leinwand, April 11, 2014

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