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The Reasons for Treating Juveniles Differently

photo of Judge Thomas Edwards Judge Thomas Edwards
Until recently he was the presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Santa Clara County, a division of the California Superior Court and presided over Shawn's case. He heard between 300 and 350 cases a month.

Why should we treat a 14 year old offender differently than a 24 year old offender?

It depends on many, many circumstances. But very generally, the 14-year-old does not have the level of maturity, thought process, decision-making, experience, or wisdom that a 24-year-old presumably has.

Secondly, a 14-year-old is still growing, may not appreciate the consequences of that type of behavior, and is susceptible to change, at least to a higher degree than a 24-year-old is. . . . I think we have a real shot at trying to straighten out the 14-year-old, and even the people who are a little bit hard-nosed in the system, such as your average prosecutor, will sometimes grudgingly admit that, with a 14-year-old, given the proper level of accountability and the proper types of programs to change their behavior, we have a chance at salvaging these kids.

But with a 24-year-old, I think the whole consensus of opinion is, "You've had your chance, you're now an adult, you've made a bad decision, you've hurt somebody, you've done it. Now you pay the price."

Judge LaDoris Cordell Judge LaDoris Cordell
Until recently she served on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, where she heard both juvenile and adult cases. A state court trial judge since 1982, she presided over Manny's fitness case.

If the 14-year-old engages in criminal conduct, and it's the same kind of conduct that the 24-year-old engages in, I don't think the response of society . . . should be to look only at the fact that they engaged in the same behavior, so treat them both the same as adults. That does not make any sense on its face. They have different life experiences that got them to that point. If the 14-year-old who got to that point can still benefit from having some kind of services to treat this person, to help them better have a life because they're only 14, then we ought to do it. . . .

. . . The problem is that we're taking 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and we're giving up on them. We're saying, "You've committed a crime, and we're just going to give up on you. You're out of here, society has no use for you." We're throwing away these kids. 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 think it is a mistake to just carte blanche give up on these young people just because of the nature of the conduct, when there is so much more that goes into why that person got there at that point in time so young in their lives. . . .

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 that this can happen. Lives can be turned around. . . .

photo of Bridgett Jones Bridgett Jones
Former supervisor of the juvenile division of the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office, she represented Shawn at his disposition.

I think the community understands, or should understand, that the younger a person is, the more likely it is that they can change. And the best way I've heard it put is from a victim in a very serious case, in a shooting case where this person had been maimed for life. He had indicated to this young person that shot him or was alleged to have shot him that he would rather meet up with this person ten years down the road as a graduate from a college versus a graduate from a penal institution. Because he had the wherewithal to understand that this person was eventually going to get back out and be in our community. They don't go away. They come back. And the younger they are, the more likely it is that they are going to come back into our community. So I guess as a community we have to decide what is it we're willing to get back in the long run. . . .


For further discussion of whether a separate justice system for juvenile offenders is necessary, or feasible, see these two articles from the special juvenile justice issue of Criminal Justice Magazine, published in Spring 2000 by the American Bar Association.

Can We Do Without Juvenile Justice?
by Jeffrey Butts
Butts argues that the juvenile system as we know it is no longer necessary. He notes that modern day juvenile courts no longer deliver on the promise of rehabilitation and low stigma for those processed in the traditional juvenile justice system, and are largely indistinguishable from the adult system. He calls for the development of an integrated youth justice system.

What of the Future? Envisioning an Effective Juvenile Court
by Judge Arthur Burnett, Sr
Burnett believes that the ideals of the original juvenile court founders--personalized sentences geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment of juvenile offenders--can still be realized. He calls for more resources to be dedicated to revamping the juvenile courts, while also developing better ways of determining which juveniles are not appropriate for treatment in the juvenile system.

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