This year in Sangamon County, the state's attorney successfully sought the removal of two cases involving adolescents to adult court for trial. It's true that their crimes are serious, each involving a loss of life, but adult court is the wrong place for juveniles for three reasons: 1. adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, 2. adult court focuses on punishment, while the juvenile court system focuses on rehabilitation and 3. the adult court system can look at black youth in a biased way. This can lead to "adultification" – viewing black adolescents as adults.
The primary reason that young people belong in juvenile court is that science has proved the teenage brain has not fully developed. Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, author of the book Welcome To Your Child's Brain, puts it this way: "Brain scans show clearly that the brain is not fully finished developing until about age 25. The changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18-year-olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That's the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal."
Another reason juvenile court is a better approach for young people is its focus on rehabilitation. Juvenile rehabilitation is a process that attempts to restore a troubled person to one who is an asset to society. A variety of methods are devised to deter future delinquency and provide strong guidance rather than to simply punish. In Illinois, we've recognized the need for a juvenile court for more than 100 years. In fact, the first juvenile court system in the nation was created under the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899. The law created a special court for neglected, dependent or delinquent children under the age of 16. It defined a rehabilitative purpose, rather than a punitive purpose, for the court. The law established confidentiality for juvenile records and required that juveniles be separated from adults when placed in the same institution.
Experts believe that rehabilitation of young offenders is appropriate even when serious crimes are involved. Judge LaDoris Cordell, who served on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California, where she heard both juvenile and adult cases, makes the case for juvenile courts: "The problem [with adult courts] is that we're taking 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and we're giving up on them. ... And I have found, in my own experience, that there are salvageable young people who have committed some very horrible kinds of crimes, who are able to get their lives together and be productive members of society. ... I have had these young people come into my court charged with committing some violent acts as serious as murder, but they had not gone into the adult system, because it was a decision I made as a result of a fitness hearing that this person indeed was amenable to treatment. And in some cases – not all, but in some cases – I have been proved right. So, I know this can happen. Lives can be turned around."
Society itself benefits from the rehabilitation of youth, particularly because young people will be part of the community when they leave the system. Bridget Jones, former supervisor of the juvenile division of the Santa Clara County (California) Public Defender's Office, explains the value of juvenile rehabilitation: "I think the community understands ... that the younger a person is the more likely it is that they can change." It's better down the road to have a young person who's committed a crime "as a graduate from college versus a graduate from a penal institution. ... As a community we have to decide what it is we're willing to get back in the long run" – someone who has been rehabilitated in the juvenile system or a person hardened by the adult criminal justice system.
A final factor making the adult criminal justice system the wrong place for juveniles is recent research showing the ways in which a child's race can affect his or her outcome in court. A recent study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty found that the public views black girls collectively as more adult than white girls, needing less protection and less nurture than white girls. The study's authors note, "adultification" (looking at a child as if he or she were an adult) contributes to the false narrative that black youths' transgressions are intentional and malicious instead of the result of immature decision-making.
We should keep teenage offenders in juvenile court, where the system understands that a child is still developing cognitively and realizes that the rehabilitation of a young person is the best option for the individual and society.
Susan Allen is a member of the Faith Coalition for the Common Good's Transformational Justice Task Force, which seeks to ensure equality in the criminal justice system. She is a longtime Springfield resident and a former state employee with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. She has always been interested in social justice issues.