The criminal justice system is rife with inequalities, and juveniles are one of the groups hit hardest.
In theory, juveniles have almost the same constitutional protections as their adult counterparts. No matter how reprehensible the crime, the teenager is entitled to be defended in court by a criminal defense attorney. To search a teen, law enforcement officials must have probable cause (the exception being a search on school grounds by a school official). Juveniles must have notice of the charges they are facing. They also have a right to representation in court proceedings, and to have an attorney appointed if they can’t afford to hire one. At the same time, the widespread view is that many juveniles who commit crimes deserve a second chance. Therefore, juveniles convicted of their crimes at a hearing usually go to a youth detention center instead of a regular prison in order to be rehabilitated. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be forced to serve life sentences without parole for crimes other than murder.
In practice, however, constitutional and other protections are often overlooked. Juveniles lack even adequate counsel, let alone an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows how to defer prosecutions or navigate the minefield of discovery, notice requirements, and motions to suppress. Furthermore, social outrage over certain crimes has led many states to make it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults. Teens are forced to serve lengthy sentences in adult prisons, despite the large gap in perspective and reason that too often exists between teens and full-fledged adults. In adult prisons, juveniles are more likely to be abused than adults, and have fewer opportunities for rehabilitation and education. Juveniles who serve less than a life sentence in adult prisons are more likely to return to crime than if they had served in a juvenile facility.
The harsh mentality toward juveniles can lead to some cruelly absurd results. For example, the age of consent in Texas is 17 years old. Anyone less than 17 years old is a considered to be a child. That means in theory, a teenager could be found guilty of sexual assault (a second-degree felony) if he or she had sex with someone younger than 17. While in certain situations, punishment for sex with a child may be justified, a 17-year old male in Texas could be sentenced for having consensual sex with a 13-year old whom he thought was really 14. There may be no indication of coercion or trickery, but the 17-year old is punished just the same — despite the fact that his “crime” is far different from that of a 30-year old having sex with a 13-year old girl. The 17-year old is forced into a system that mistreats him, and faces the loss freedom for a significant amount of time. This could have a lasting impact on him, creating a criminal where one might not have existed otherwise.
That is not to say that juveniles who commit crimes should be let off the hook. All crimes should be dealt with seriously, especially violent crimes. Still, with teenagers, you always need to consider whether the crime merits a lengthy sentence in adult prison or juvenile facility. Was the crime caused by carelessness or short-sightedness that is so often found in that age group? Is there no reason to believe the teen can turn his or her life around? Many people erroneously assume that the mold has been set, that a “bad” teen will be an adult criminal. But if the teen’s situation is treated with sensitivity, instead of being dismissed, the criminal justice system may be able to prevent this from happening.