Adolescents in Criminal Court Systems
Criminal justice processes involve a balance between liberty and order. That balance means that the fundamental concern for addressing the rights of adolescents in criminal courts centers on how their status figures in efforts to preserve their basic rights against state encroachment while, at the same time, accommodating to the need for legitimate state encroachment to protect individuals and fetter crime. Remarkably, once adolescents are in the adult criminal justice system, their rights become essentially the same as those of adults. The reason for the similarity is that adolescents tried in criminal courts essentially are deemed adults. Yet, two major constitutional issues typically arise when criminal courts process adolescents. The first set of issues involves the nature of their right not to be in the adult system. These issues raise procedural concerns, such as what kind of protections adolescents do have from being erroneously tried in adult courts and from being denied the benefits of juvenile court adjudications. The second set of issues involves the nature of punishments that criminal courts can impose. This set of rights is something particularly important in that the legal system typically assumes that certain capacities are needed for specific punishments and, equally importantly, the legal system concerns itself with ensuring that specific individuals properly receive punishments. As a result, this set of issues raises procedural due process protections, such as those ensuring that adolescents receive appropriate punishments relative to their capacities. In addition, this set of issues raises 8th Amendment concerns, such as those regarding the nature of punishments themselves and whether adolescents should even be eligible to receive specific punishments. This area of law reveals important aspects of the period of adolescence that matters most to constitutional law. In doing so, it provides the groundwork for guiding developments in other areas because adolescents in the criminal justice system have direct control over their rights, something different from other systems that often need to consider parental rights.