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Should children as young as 10 and 13 be tried as adults?

People across the U.S. and world were shocked to learn of the recent stabbing of a 12-year-old girl at the hands of her two 12-year-old friends. Reports of the incident indicate the girls’ carried out the crime to appeal to a fictional Internet character known as Slender Man. The state, in which the stabbing took place, requires that juveniles over the age of 10 who commit certain crimes must be charged and tried as adults. If convicted, the 12-year-old girls could be sentenced to serve 65 years in prison.

There's no doubt that the actions of the two girls were violent, wrong and incredibly disturbing. The crime, however, has spurred debate over how best to deal with violent juvenile offenders. Are laws that mandate that children as young as 10 or 13 be tried as adults effective in reducing recidivism or in aiding in the rehabilitation of these troubled youths?

Starting in the 1980s, the American criminal justice system began imposing laws requiring that juveniles who are charged with committing certain crimes be tried as adults. Prior to the passage of these laws, juvenile offenders were often provided treatment, education and the support and tools needed to turn their lives around.

Today, the criminal justice system tends to view violent juvenile offenders as lost causes. As a result, children as young as 10 or 13 can be sentenced to spend the remainder of their teen years and most of their adult lives locked behind bars. For a child whose actions were likely at least partially attributable to underlying mental health issues and a violent or unhealthy upbringing, any hope of a better life is forever lost.

There is no doubt that the acts the two 12-year-old girls reportedly carried out were terrible and it's likely that one or both will be deemed incompetent to stand trial. As a democratic society, the U.S. must take a hard look at how our legal system continues to prosecute children as adults and lock them up rather than provide the mental and emotional help they so desperately need.

 

Source: ABC News, "Wisconsin Stabbing Highlights Juvenile Crime Laws," M.L. Johnson, June 5, 2014

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