Children are Different: Constitutional Values and Juvenile Justice Policy

The emerging principle that “children are different” from adult offenders will direct the future course of juvenile justice says a new paper in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. In the essay, Elizabeth S. Scott examines how three Supreme Court opinions have created a special status for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment, the science backing this, and the implications for juvenile crime regulation.
Scott identifies the “children are different” approach in the cases Miller v. Alabama, Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons, three instances in the last seven years of the Supreme Court holding that harsh criminal sentences―life without parole and the death penalty―on juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. According to Scott, these opinions are a marked departure from hostile policies of the 90s ignoring the differences between juveniles and adults, and one which has been spurred by advances in developmental science.
A growing body of research illustrates specific behavioral and neurobiological differences between adolescents and adults that also distinguish them as offenders. The Court focused on three factors: adolescents’ tendency for taking risks without considering future consequences, their vulnerability to external influences, particularly peers, and the transient nature of these and other developmental influences. These traits set juveniles apart from adults, and thereby warrant their differential treatment. They also speak to adolescents’ unique capacity for reform, pressing the case for developmentally based correctional programs over the costly and often less effective route of imprisonment.
Scott lists four key lessons for lawmakers arising from this trend:

  1. Juvenile offenders are different from and less culpable than adults and should usually be subject to more lenient criminal sanctions.
  2. Decisions to subject juveniles to adult prosecution and punishment should be “unusual” and individualized — made by a judge in a transfer hearing and not by categorical legislative waiver.
  3. Sanctions should focus on maximizing young offenders’ potential for reform.
  4. Developmental science can guide and inform juvenile crime regulation in useful ways.

Of the current climate, Scott says “policy makers have begun to understand that much teenage crime is driven by developmental influences, and to embrace the lesson that justice policy should attend to juvenile offenders’ potential for reform.” It remains to be seen if the “children are different” principle will be applied more widely as a restraint on youth sentencing. But, optimistically, this legal trend signals a recognition of the impact of imprisonment on young offenders’ lives that will usher reform to more appropriate, fair and effective policy.

Gabrielle Nygaard is a Digital and Social Media Intern at Prichard Communications, where she assists on several accounts, including Reclaiming Futures. She is a student at Linfield College studying Mass Communication and Japanese. She is an Oregon native and health enthusiast.
 *Photo at top by Flickr user Juan_Carlos_Cruz

Updated: February 08 2018