How should we punish youthful offenders?

| May 31, 2021 | Juvenile offenses |

Should teenagers be punished as if they were adults? According to a pediatrician advocating for minors caught up in the juvenile system, no. Despite this, reform for youthful offenders has been slow, and many teens still face disproportionately severe consequences for youthful indiscretions. 

Are the consequences too severe? 

It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed juvenile death sentences. Still, teenagers in Washington can face spending time behind bars and might even be sentenced to life without parole. However, Sarah Denny — a pediatrician who advocates for juvenile offenders — says that these consequences are not aligned with what science knows about teenagers. 

The frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for attention, impulse control and decision making, and is not fully developed until a person reaches his or her mid 20s. According to Denny, punishing teenagers as if they are adults means they are not receiving the support and compassion that they deserve. She is one of many juvenile justice advocates who support: 

  • Getting rid of the ability to transfer teens to adult courts 
  • Creating a more developmentally appropriate age range for juvenile court jurisdiction 
  • Providing trauma informed care for detained youth 

Many youthful offenders have experienced trauma in their past, which the court sometimes fails to take into account. Sentencing a child to severe consequences can further compound that trauma, too. This is something that Washington parents who are guiding their children through the juvenile justice system need to be aware of, as it may help inform their decisions they make regarding criminal defense.