Criminal Justice

Should juveniles be tried as adults?

Juvenile arrests have been on the decline for the past two decades, but many still have polarized views on whether these youth offenders should be tried differently than adults

Rise of the Issue

A wave of legislative action to raise the cut-off age for juvenile courts has led less and less youth to be tried as adults.Some applaud this shift, arguing juveniles’ brains are not yet fully developed and they must be given a fair chance to rehabilitate. Others are worried it will only lead to higher rates of reoffending and that justice will not be served for the victims and their families.

There are currently around 80% less youth being tried as adults in the U.S. than at the turn of the century. This is mostly due to so-called “raise the age” laws. Almost all states have raised the age to be tried in a juvenile court to 18. Vermont has gone even further and implemented a bill that will raise the age to 20 by 2024.The only three that have not passed raise the wage laws are Georgia, Wisconsin, and Texas, where the cut-off is still 16.

Issue Timeline


Minors and Adults Are Tried the Same

There are no distinctions between trials for underage and adults; children as young as seven were charged, tried, sentenced, and jailed the same way as their adult counterparts.


First Institution for Juvenile Delinquents is Founded

The New York House of Refuge was the first institution specifically for convicted minors, founded by the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency.


Cook County Establishes First Juvenile Court

The first court specifically geared towards juvenile is created in Illinois.


Congress Passes Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) tells states to prepare for extensive plans for juvenile delinquency and establishes the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to help states implement prevention, rehabilitation, training, and research programs.


Congress Reauthorizes JJDPA

The new law confirms the mission of the OJJDP and reorganizes it to continue to effectively help states with their juvenile justice and delinquency policies and programs.


Juvenile Justice Reform Act Becomes Law

The Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA) regrants the OJJDP the power to support states with their juvenile justice and delinquency and amends the JJDPA, for example by making sure minors accused of crimes are not held in the same jails as adults while they await trial.

Micro Issues


Brain Development

While opponents say that a minor should not be punished the same as adults because their brains have not fully developed yet, supporters think offenders should take full responsibility for their actions, regardless of their age.



The two sides have opposed views on whether trying juveniles as adults has a positive or negative effect on their chances of rehabilitation.


Serving Justice

Supporters say trying juveniles as adults brings more consistent justice for survivors, while opponents believe it is more important to tailor the sentence to the age of the offender because a younger criminal has more mitigating circumstances.

Pro Arguments


Being punished as an adult is a proportionate penalty for severe crimes.

Around 350 people are killed each year by a so-called ‘lone juvenile offender’. For these types and comparable crimes, an adult punishment is proportionate to the crime.


Being tried as an adult gives minors the opportunity to have a trial by jury.

Adults accused of a crime in the U.S. have a right to be judged by a jury of their peers. This is not the case for minors that are accused of crimes. Trial by jury also gives the community a say in how the case should be handled.


Adult sentences are a deterrent for serious crimes.

One of the reasons we have severe punishments is to deter people from committing serious crimes. Youths receiving lesser punishments due to their age goes against that logic.


Adult punishments give the system more time to rehabilitate youth.

For youths who commit serious crimes – such as murder – a longer sentence means the justice system has more time to fully rehabilitate an offender before they are released back into society.


It brings justice for those affected by the crime.

The effects of the crime on the families of victims remain the same, regardless of the offender’s age. From that perspective, sentencing juvenile offenders as severely as adults could bring the sense of justice and comfort needed for the victims’ environment.

Con Arguments


The juvenile system was created explicitly for minors who commit crimes.

The system in place is appropriately designed to take into account the differences between minors and adults in sentencing with the goal of preventing juveniles from reoffending as adults.


Juvenile delinquents’ brains are not yet fully developed.

The Supreme Court has recognized this as meaning that minors are more susceptible to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to oversee long-term consequences and more likely to rehabilitate than adults, which means their sentencing should take those mitigating factors into account.


Underage delinquents are still considered minors in other areas.

Minors are still not considered as fully responsible for their lives in other areas, such as voting for example, putting in question the idea that they would then be responsible enough to receive the same penalties as adults for criminal activity.


Minors could be put in prison with adults.

Being tried as an adult means juveniles can be put in the same detention centers as adults, which could put minors at risk.


The crimes would stain their adult criminal records.

If a juvenile offender is tried as an adult and is convicted, it becomes part of their adult criminal record. This can hinder them later in life – for example when they are looking for a job.