Should Minors Be Waived to Adult Court?

By Asia H. – Criminal Justice Intern

In virtually all areas of life, children are treated differently than adults. Society recognizes that children are biologically immature and thus held to a different standard. The criminal justice system is no different. Though it was not always the case, juvenile offenders are adjudicated differently than adult offenders. The first juvenile court opened in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois. Designed to adjudicate juvenile offenders, this court prioritized rehabilitation for minors instead of the punitive approach geared towards adults. However, why do juvenile courts treat minors differently from adult offenders? The answer is mainly biological.

The prefrontal cortex, the decision making part of our brains, doesn’t mature until we are 25 years old. Adolescents have underdeveloped brains with their frontal lobes being unbalanced and prone to poor and risky decision making. Socially, adolescents lack the experience and skills needed to assess a situation and make appropriate choices. Additional research has found that adolescents are not stagnant in criminal behavior. That is, one criminal offense is not indicative of future criminal behavior. Recognizing that adolescents may engage in criminal behavior as a result of poor decision making is critical to deciding how to treat them. Culpability of adolescents is severely impacted by their biology and psychological development. The lack of control over normal biological development cannot be punished and used against juvenile offenders when adjudicating their cases and deciding to waive them to adult court. Juvenile courts recognize the biological impairments minors face and treat them differently than adult offenders.

There are instances where a minor can be tried in adult court. Historically, while the waiving of minors to adult court was not standard practice, certain circumstances increased the likelihood of a minor being tried in adult court. What are some of the “aggravating” factors that lead a juvenile being transferred to adult Court? Age, race, severity of crime, and criminal history all influence the decision to try minors in adult court. Heinous crimes that showed a significant degree of premeditation and malice can drive a minor to adult court. Previous crimes often demonstrate a lack of remorse and failure to rehabilitate and can cause a minor to be waived to adult court. There are several ways for minors to be waived to adult court including judicial waivers, prosecutorial waivers, legislative waivers and laws and statutes that treat juveniles previously tried as adults as adults thereon after.

Judicial Waivers: They may require reviewing the severity of the crime, age and the
offender’s profile, previous criminal history, or deciding if certain circumstances are
satisfied for waiving.

Prosecutorial Waiver: The prosecutor decides if they want to prosecute the case in
criminal court or not.

Legislative Waiver: Age and type of offense decide if the juvenile is tried in adult court.

In some jurisdictions, once a minor is waived to adult court, they will be treated as an adult for any future crimes. At that point, the juvenile system may be useless in rehabilitating the adolescent. The juvenile court system has a critical role in treating juvenile offenders and reforming the justice system as a whole. Though it is best avoided, some minors must be waived to adult court as they are beyond the help of the juvenile system.