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Touching Spirit Bear: Juvenile Justice Part II

Fast Facts

There have been three separate rulings since 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court that have adjusted federal standards for juvenile sentencing by abolishing the death penalty, life sentences without parole for non-homicides, and mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. These rulings reflect the impact of new research on adolescent development and highlight how many states are shifting toward treating juvenile offenders differently than adults. 

Between 2001 and 2011, 20 states passed laws to expand the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, such as by raising the age limit for juvenile offenses, she said. Other state trends include the passage of legislation improving young people’s access to sound legal defense, reallocating funds from correctional facilities to community-based alternatives, and focusing on young people’s mental health needs.

At least 10 states have passed laws to address racial disparities in the detention and incarceration of youth in the last 10 years, Brown said. And more than half of all states have passed laws aimed at supporting young people once they are released from detention or confinement.  from: 

  • The Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs does not outlaw all life sentences without parole for juveniles. It only bars states from mandating such sentences for any crimes, including murder. Experts who favor the ruling say it will give decision-making power back to judges, who may still decide to jail a person for life, depending on the specifics of an individual’s case.
  • About 2,500 prisoners in the U.S. are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were
    juveniles (age 17 or younger). About 2,000 of them are serving mandatory sentences recently barred by the Supreme Court.
  • The U.S. is one of the few nations that have not signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of
    the Child, which bans life sentences without parole for juveniles.  from Junior Scholastic Sept 2012

Useful Links

State Laws

In 1997, 22 states had provisions for transferring juveniles to criminal court which did not specify a minimum age. For those that did specify a minimum age, the most common (16 states) was age 14. Two states, Kansas and Vermont, set the minimum age as low as 10. In many states, once a juvenile is tried and convicted as an adult, he or she must be prosecuted in criminal court for any subsequent offenses.

STATE BY STATE WAIVER LAWS (by offense and minimum age)
In most States, no minimum age is specified in at least one judicial waiver, concurrent jurisdiction, or statutory exclusion provision for transferring juveniles to criminal court

Minimum transfer age indicated in section(s) of juvenile code specifying transfer provisions, 1997

No Minimum Age 10 12 13 14 15
Dist. of Columbia
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia
New Hampshire
New York
North Carolina
New Jersey
North Dakota
New Mexico

*Other sections of State statute specify an age below which children cannot be tried in criminal court. This minimum age for criminal responsibility is 14 in Idaho, 12 in Georgia, 8 in Nevada and Washington, and 7 in Oklahoma. In Washington, 8- to 12-year-olds are presumed to be in-capable of committing a crime. In Oklahoma, in cases involving 7- to 14-year-olds, the State must prove that at the time of the act, the child knew it was wrong.

Source: Authors' adaptation of Griffin et al.'s Trying juveniles as adults in criminal court: An analysis of State transfer provisions.

Four Kids, Four Crimes...Two were sent to adult court, two were treated as juveniles.  How would you decide?


He brutally attacked his own father, stabbing him repeatedly with a knife, and pled guilty to charges of attempted murder in juvenile court in order to avoid being tried as an adult. Some observers questioned whether Shawn's sentence from the juvenile court judge was too lenient, and whether it showed that the system treats white offenders differently than those of other races.


He was a "frequent flyer" in the juvenile system, with seven theft-related offenses on his record. Prosecutors believed the juvenile system could do nothing more for him, and wanted him tried as an adult for his latest offenses, auto theft and residential burglary. But his attorney believed the system had let him down and fought hard to get him one more shot.


He took part in a violent fight, allegedly gang-related, in which one person was killed and another injured. Although tried as an adult, he served his sentence in Juvenile Hall, and by all accounts has turned his life around. To those who worked with him, Jose represents how kids, even those charged with violent offenses, can change when given a chance.


Manny took part in an assault on a neighborhood family. One of the victims was pregnant. Because of the brutality of the attack, Manny was tried as an adult and pled guilty to seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon. On January 22, 2001, Manny was sentenced to nine years at state prison.

Circle of Justice