Charges against an eight-year-old Arizona boy for murdering his father and the father’s roommate illustrate a persistent quandary of the criminal justice system, says the Wall Street Journal. Some question whether they should face charges in the juvenile system itself, meant for older children. “When we made so-called murder policy, nobody had an eight-year-old in mind,” says Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. A peak in juvenile crime in the early 1990s, followed by a wave of school shootings, helped drive support for lowering the permissble ages for trying youths as adults.
Only 16 states define an age at which a child is capable of forming criminal intent, according to 2007 figures from the National Center for Juvenile Justice. In North Carolina, the minimum age is six. Most of the other 34 states leave it up to prosecutors. Some experts believe that because some laws are soft on children, drug dealers and gang members may be encouraged to recruit more “shorties,” or youngsters who commit crimes on their behalf, says Linda Szymanski of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Behavioral research raises questions as to whether children in their early-to-mid-teens can even form criminal intent, a key component of a murder charge. The justice system too often focuses on whether children know right from wrong, rather than whether they can control their behavior, says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of “Reinventing Juvenile Justice.”