Youth Justice Reforms Offer Model for Ending ‘Merciless’ Punishment of Adults: Paper

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Illustration courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The growing acceptance that juveniles deserve more humane treatment in the U.S. criminal justice system should establish a template for treating adults the same way―and for ending the “draconian” sentences that have contributed to mass incarceration, according to a forthcoming paper in the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

In the paper, entitled “Juveniles Are Not So Different: The Punishment of Juveniles and Adults at the Crossroads,” Mugambi Jouet, an assistant professor with McGill University’s faculty of law, says “children are different” doctrines used to justify less harsh treatment for juveniles are based on principles of humane treatment that have long since been deployed by many other countries towards adult offenders.

He argued that it’s past time for U.S. jurisdictions to follow suit in reforming their sentencing guidelines.

The change in treatment towards juveniles over the past decade has been informed by scientific research into adolescent behavior and underwritten by Supreme Court rulings.

Although the reforms are still marked by “rigid age carve-outs” that still land justice-involved young people over the age of 17 or 18 in many states in adult court, they represent a major achievement, Jouet wrote.

But, he added, the achievement is undermined by the persistence of “tough-on-crime” approaches to adult sentencing.

He called for “an upward-leveling process under which juveniles’ emerging right to be free from merciless punishments would apply to everyone.”

Reform measures over the past couple decades have focused on juvenile rights, claiming that with a developing mind, juveniles can’t be held to the same treatment as adults.

Enforcing a “juveniles are not so different” doctrine, however, would reform the justice system in a way that punishments – no matter the age – would “reflect principles of human rights, human dignity, proportionality, and rehabilitation,” wrote Jouet.

Even though juveniles are commonly cited as deserving more rights than adults due to cognitive function, science “does not support a rigid dichotomy between childhood and adulthood,” says Jouet.

Young adults in their late teens and early twenties can still display poor judgement and decision making, making them just as susceptible to crime.

The article also notes that criminality peaks around 18 years old, and steeply declines after that.

Placing such harsh sentences on adults, when criminality is less likely, shows “the inutility of imprisoning myriad adults well past their peak crime years.”

The standard isn’t the same in other countries.

In fact, America’s “tough on crime” era and reputation of mass incarceration represents “a model of what to avoid” to other countries, said the article.

“Elsewhere in the West ‘juveniles are different’ might mean one-two years behind bars for a teenager guilty of a grave crime and five-15 years for an adult for equivalent wrongdoing,” said Jouet.

“In America, it may mean one or two decades in prison for the teenager and life without parole for the adult.”

He continued: “One of the reasons why other Western democracies do not have American-style mass incarceration is that they apply these sentencing principles across the board, instead of restricting them to juveniles based on rigid age carve-outs.”

These “age carve-outs” could cost America a lot.

According to the article, it will take the U.S. until 2085 to reduce prison populations by 50 percent.

Working on reforming all sentencing measures – not just those of juveniles and low level offenders – could help speed up the process, helping to reduce prison populations and creating a more equitable environment for those who are sentenced.

“Mass incarceration is not set in stone, but reformers may not be able to dismantle it so long as the abolition of draconian punishments is narrowly limited based on age,” said Jouet.

The article also analyzes the history of the American juvenile justice system.

Beginning with a large British influence, America worked its way through barely allowing juveniles any rights under parens patriae, to making their rights equal to that of adults, to the current day, where efforts are being made across the country that allow juveniles to be treated with more rights.

The Graham-Miller-Montgomery trilogy, which Jouet references as a trio of influential American juvenile justice court cases, gave juveniles protections against the death penalty, certain sentencing requirements, and life without parole in nonhomicide cases.

According to Jouet, these three cases were groundbreaking in that they represented a standard set by the Supreme Court which defined “draconian prison sentences as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment.”

Even after decades of youth justice reform, advocates argue that more needs to be done.

“Youth should remain a mitigating circumstance, and juvenile courts should retain age-appropriate procedures, but America should abolish draconian prison terms categorically,” said Jouet.

“The primary problem appears less the discrepancy between juveniles and adults than the normalization of draconian punishments,” wrote Jouet.

“Both society and the doctrine should evolve accordingly.”

The full paper is available here.

Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern

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