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How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids

Successful campaigns to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction have rolled back some excesses of the tough on crime era. After the implementation of Louisiana’s SB 324 in 2017 and South Carolina’s SB 916 in 2019, just seven states will routinely charge 17- year old offenders as adults, including the two states that also charge 16-year olds as adults.1

Despite other state laws that differentiate between adults and youth, placing limits on teens’ rights to serve on juries, vote, or marry without parental consent, the criminal justice system in these jurisdictions erases the distinction when they are arrested. Though the vast majority of arrested juveniles are processed in the juvenile justice system, transfer laws are the side door to adult criminal courts, jails, and prisons. These laws either require juveniles charged with certain offenses to have their cases tried in adult courts or provide discretion to juvenile court judges or even prosecutors to pick and choose those juveniles who will be tried in adult courts.

It is widely understood that serious offenses, such as homicide, often are tried in adult criminal courts. In fact, for as long as there have been juvenile courts, mechanisms have existed to allow the transfer of some youth into the adult system.2 During the early 1990s, under a set of faulty assumptions about a coming generation of “super-predators,” 40 states passed legislation to send even more juveniles into the adult courts for a growing array of offenses and with fewer procedural protections.3 The super-predators, wrote John J. DiIulio in 1995, “will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.”4

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

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