The term “adolescence” refers to that transitional stage of physical and psychological human development generally occurring between puberty and legal adulthood which is also referred to as the age of majority (Coleman, 1995). During this stage of development, adolescents seem to go through a number of changes and challenges. The reason that can be adduced for this is the fact that this transitional period is the time when most of these children are trying to actually discover who they are.
Often, they grapple with certain issues such as the physical and hormonal changes happening in their own bodies and which they have not been previously accustomed to. During this period of seeming crisis and self-discovery, a large percentage of them tend to rebel and some even take to criminal behavior. Given the importance of this adolescent phase in shaping the character of the people they ultimately become, it is essential to look into problems of adolescence with the specific aim of finding lasting solutions for them. This paper therefore provides an analysis of criminal behavior and treatment of adolescent children.
The question that then arises is this, what comprises of criminal behavior? To sufficiently answer this question, one must first understand the meaning of ‘crime’. It is from this understanding that one can subsequently infer the kind of character that would be said to amount to criminal behavior. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines crime as “An action or omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law.” Morrison (2008) is not content with a simplistic definition of crime. Instead, he posits that “crime is not something that exists in abstraction, or that can be defined as a ‘plain-fact’ situation. Instead crime is a complex interaction of many processes, beginning with the creation of a concept of ‘crime’, to people identifying some event as a crime, to the formal activities of state agencies in punishing the criminals”. From the above descriptions of crime we can then infer that the term ‘criminal behavior’ refers to conduct that has expressly been prohibited under the laws of the state. It refers to illegal conduct that is a violation of the laws of the land.
Many adolescent children usually give in to the pressures of adolescence and end up getting involved in a number of activities that are criminal in nature. This includes conduct such as drug and substance abuse, theft, robbery and in the most serious cases we even have adolescent children committing crimes such as homicide and suicide. In fact, according to statistics by the State university of New York (2009) the rate of adolescent suicide had tripled over the past three decades to 5,000 per year. At the time of the research, it was estimated that there were 50-200 attempts for every death by suicide, all done by adolescent children. Aside for that, in this era of technological advancements a good number of the crimes committed on the internet are actually committed by adolescent children.
Once crime is committed, certain legal consequences and sanctions usually follow. However, it is important to note that historically, the treatment of an adult who has committed a crime was never the same as that of a minor. A minor by definition is any person who has not reached the age of the majority set in any country. Needless to say, all adolescent children are categorized as minors and therefore the treatment for their criminal conduct is usually that prescribed for minors and commonly referred to as juvenile law. Previously in the US for instance, criminal conduct for adolescent children was held as being less serious as compared to that of adults. For this reason, even the type of punishment meted out for juveniles was mainly seen as a rehabilitation step as opposed to being punitive. However, this has changed drastically and today criminal behavior is treated with almost the same amount of severity as that accorded for adult criminals.
The relationship between criminal behavior of adolescent children and the treatment accorded to this behavior under the law has evolved over the years. In the US, research shows that twenty years ago even the most serious cases that involved years of age children under seven were adjudicated in juvenile court, and in a non-punitive fashion. The law has today changed dramatically, to the point where some states now entirely reject formal age restrictions on the prosecution of children. The result of this is that adolescent children of any age are now potentially eligible for criminal punishment on an almost similar basis as adults. The law has moved firmly, and almost universally, in the direction of convicting and punishing juveniles who commit violent offenses (Ward, 2010).
Hellmintoller (2009) advances an illustration of the lack of effectiveness of the justice system as far as rehabilitation of some adolescent criminals is concerned. He points to the case of Sullivan v. Florida, where13-year-old Joe Sullivan was accused of brutally raping an elderly woman after a robbery. These crimes, in conjunction with the 17 other offenses that Sullivan committed previously, led the judge to sentence Sullivan to life in prison. In spite of the issues arising as to the whether a fair trial had been accorded to Sullivan, the main contentious issue was the suitability of a life sentence in the case of a minor. Sullivan’s lawyer’s defense was that the young boy was mentally challenged and no longer presented a threat to the society. Here, it can be seen that the better approach would have been to put this child into an institution for rehabilitation purposes. On a different note, there are actually instances where the conduct by an adolescent child can be so heinous, that letting them go scot free would seem an act of impunity and a contravention of the rule of law. Therefore, allowing a child to be punished under the same criminal justice system as adults can properly have its degree of justification.
Given the above, it is important to evaluate the current position regarding the treatment of criminal behavior by adolescent children. . My opinion is that cases dealing with punishment for minors should be decided on a case-by-case basis. A heinous crime committed by a minor is not remains to be a crime. The fact that someone attains the age of majority does not entirely change that person into a brand new being, absolutely different from his past character. Therefore, it should ultimately be left up to judges to decide if a given punishment fits the crime committed.
Those who oppose the punishment of adolescent children under the criminal justice system often argue that these juveniles are merely experimenting in risky behavior and should therefore be tolerated. They argue that most of them actually transform upon gaining the age of majority. I however hold a divergent view from this, since their criminal conduct poses a threat to the society as a matter of fact. It is not realistic to expect that a 17 year old who commits murder or an act of terror killing hundreds of people, will automatically assume saintly conduct upon turning 18. For this reason, I support those who advocate for treatment of criminal conduct as just that. It remains criminal and according special treatment in this regard does not solve the problem but rather brews an even greater problem.