It’s Time to Change How We Look at Juvenile Offenders
September 2, 2022
Since 1995, the media has perpetuated the term “superpredators” to refer to juvenile offenders who participated in violent crimes. They said that these offenders were unempathetic, psychopathic murderers and rapists who roam the streets looking for a victim, a threat to society who deserve to be tried as adults to ensure that they get the highest possible sentence. But how true is that, really? According to studies in criminology and psychology, these crimes weren’t acts of a superpredator but teenagers whose brains are still a work in progress, making them less responsible for their crimes. With that in mind, how can we try these adolescents as something that they are not?
These adolescents are neurologically wired differently than adults. According to one paper published by Princeton University, teenagers are more likely to have lesser decision-making capabilities and are more susceptible to social pressure due to their still-developing brains. Adolescents are more vulnerable to committing violent crimes for reasons other than malice, and those reasons would be less appreciated in an adult court than in a Juvenile court. Therefore, trying these adolescents as an adult can penalize them further for having a disposition, by no fault of their own, that can make them predisposed to committing those crimes. After adolescence, and by extension a more developed brain, the distinction between immaturity and immorality becomes easier to distinguish.
Moreover, because these offenders can develop into more rational adults, there is a public incentive to provide a rehabilitative environment for these teenagers to develop into adults that will benefit society, rather than staying in prison. Depending on which nation, adult prisons are either geared for punitive or rehabilitative treatment towards adults. Of course, as we already know, adolescents behave very differently from adults and therefore need more specific resources geared towards their psychology. One example of national policy favoring rehabilitation rather than punitive treatment is in Germany, where policy allows people under the age of 21 to go to a facility that provides minimum-wage jobs, opportunities to secure flats, and even time to socialize. This prison has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world.
As adolescents are far more likely to have underdeveloped brains, it becomes unethical to treat them as adults. Otherwise, we risk jeopardizing their ability to reintegrate into society. Most importantly, however, we must reflect on how we must address juvenile offenders: through retribution, to punish them for their crimes and evil, or through understanding and rehabilitation, to recognize their character as something fluid and amenable to change.
Bogert, Carroll, and Lynnell Hancock. “Superpredator: The Media Myth That Demonized a Generation of Black Youth.” The Marshall Project, 20 Nov. 2020, www.themarshallproject.org/2020/11/20/superpredator-the-media-myth-that-demonized-a-generation-of-black-youth/.
Johns, Brandon. “Juvenile Justice in the United States: Juvenile Life without Parole.” Medium, 16 Apr. 2020, medium.com/@bjohns81/juvenile-justice-the-american-justice-system-vs-other-countries-3dc6860c77ad.
Scott, Elizabeth S., and Laurence Steinberg. “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime.” The Future of Children, vol. 18, no. 2, 2008, pp. 15–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20179977. Accessed 30 June 2021.