Controversies: Should Adolescents be Tried as Adults?

About the controversies series: Controversies publications present the academic literature pertaining to an issue, and take one empirically-based side. These publications are intended for distribution and are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are interested in issues in psychology and law. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Controversies publications undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.

About the author: This article was written by  Oxana Malanceva, PhD student at Moscow City University, and EAPL-S representative for Russia.

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Remember to also read our fact sheet on young offenders!


At present, there are two opposing views regarding the status of adolescents in the legal system. The “adolescent-as-child” view contends that adolescents are by nature substantially different from adults and, as such, separate legal rights and standards should be applied to address the unique differences of this special population. The alternative view, “adolescents-as-adults”, argue that adolescents are developmentally comparable to adults, therefore similar legal measures should be taken when trying and sentencing adolescent offenders. In response to this, there is evidence for and against the view that adolescents should be tried as adults.

“Adolescence is a tumultuous time, full or change and transformation... The adultification of youth (or waiver to adult court) is unduly harsh for youth whose brains have not fully formed.” – Dr. Allison Burke

Evidence for.

Adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 should be held responsible for their actions, particularly in the case of serious crimes (e.g. murder). This type of argument tends to be endorsed by a lay audience, which is generally unaware of the circumstances unique to adolescent development. Ultimately, proponents of this view contend that adolescents have reached the developmental stage where they have acquired the cognitive abilities necessary to understand the fundamental differences between good and bad.

In the legal process, juvenile offenders can be transferred and tried under the adult criminal justice system. Young offenders can be transferred from juvenile to adult courts through a Judicial Waiver, Direct File, or Statutory Exclusion. A juvenile court judge may decide to transfer the case (called “waiving” jurisdiction), based on a variety of factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the offender’s level of maturity, and likelihood of rehabilitation. Under statutory exclusion, certain categories of juveniles are automatically excluded from juvenile court. These categories are typically determined by some combination of age and offense (e.g., an individual is accused of armed robbery and is 14-years old; Steinberg, 2000).

Evidence against.

Opponents of the aforementioned perspective take the stance of adolescents as child, arguing that young offenders should be kept out of adult criminal courts and should be tried strictly within the juvenile system. Many even make the assumption of doli incapax, which presumes that children are not able to form a guilty mind, and therefore, are incapable of crime under legislation or common law (Becroft, 2006). In fact, laws have been formalized to protect adolescents against the various mechanisms put in place to transfer juvenile cases from the young offender courts to the adult criminal justice system. Under such guidelines children are considered a vulnerable group, affording them separate privileges. It has been argued that the age of criminal responsibility should be determined by individual assessments of a child or adolescent’s level of psychological maturation, relative to his or her level of responsibility, impulsivity, decision-making, understanding of consequences, and capacity for rehabilitation (Dozortseva, E.G., 2009). Proponents of this view argue that the mind continues to develop well after the body has physically matured, as evidenced by neuroimaging and developmental research.

What it all means.

Based on a lack of consistency in determining the appropriate age of criminal responsibility, the initial question of, “should adolescents be tried as adults” may be better rephrased as, “should adolescents be held to the same level of responsibility for their actions as adults?”.

Neither perspective on adolescent crime adequately resolves the controversial issue of what age adolescents should be held responsible for their actions. What the literature does agree on, is that the appropriate age of criminal responsibility should be grounded in an empirical understanding of children and adolescent’s maturational processes. In some instances, juvenile offences may be more appropriately treated under the adult criminal system (like in for serious crimes) however, to impose a single cut-off age at which every child or adolescent is to be held to the same developmental standards as adults can lead to potentially unjust and arbitrary decisions regarding criminal responsibility.

The quote wall.

“An estimated 200,000 juveniles are tried as adults yearly and receive punitive sentences intended to deter crime and increase public safety.”

– Dr. Karen Miner-Romanoff, criticizing the deterrence model for youth.

"While the justice system assumes adulthood is reached by the age of 18 and given the increase in the number of juveniles being tried within adult court, it is imperative to understand whether young people are as criminally culpable for their actions as adults and where differences may lie in the maturity of young people and their adult counterparts.”

- Claire Bryan-Hancock and BJ Casey, experts on developmental psychobiology.

"Abilities associated with adjudicative competence were assessed among 927 adolescents in juvenile detention facilities and community settings... Youths aged 15 and younger performed more poorly than young adults, with a greater proportion manifesting a level of impairment consistent with that of persons found incompetent to stand trial. Adolescents also tended more often than young adults to make choices that reflected compliance with authority, as well as influences of psychosocial immaturity."

– Thomas Grisso, legal psychiatrist, and his colleagues on juvenile competence to stand trial.

“Even after rigorous statistical matching procedures, juvenile offenders are punished more severely than their young adult counterparts.”

– Dr. Megan Kurlycheck, researcher and expert on juvenile justice and sentencing.

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  1. Becroft, A. J. (2006). Children and young people in conflict with the law: asking the hard question. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, V.57, 4, 1-37.
  2. Bryan-Hancock, C., & Casey, S. (2010). Psychological maturity of at-risk juveniles, young adults and adults: Implications for the justice system. Psychiatry, Psychology And Law, 17(1), 57-69.
  3. Burke, A. S. (2011). Under construction: Brain formation, culpability, and the criminal justice system. International Journal Of Law And Psychiatry,34(6), 381-385. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.10.001
  4. Dozortseva, E. G. (2009). Forensic psychiatric and psychological assessment of minor offender. Clinical and forensic psychology, Moscow: Genesis.
  5. Jost, (1993). Children’s legal rights. CQ Researcher, 339, 121-125.
  6. Kurlychek, M.C., Johnson, B.D. (2010). Juvenility and Punishment: sentencing juveniles in adult criminal court. Criminology, V.48, 3, 725-758.
  7. Mears, D.P., Hay, C., Gertz, M., Mancini, C. (2007). Public opinion and the foundation of the Juvenile Court. Criminology. V.45, 1, 223-257.
  8. Miner-Romanoff, K. (2011). Incarcerated adults sentenced in adult criminal court while juveniles: Knowledge, understanding, and perceptions of their sentences. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 71,
  9. Price, D.A., Boersma, G. (1998). The Juvenile Court at 100: Challenges and Opportunities. Juvenile and Family Court Journal. 89-103.
  10. Steinberg, L. (2009). Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. The Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 5, 47-73.
  11. Steinberg, L. (2000). Should juvenile offenders be tried as adults? A developmental perspective on changing legal policies. Temple University //
  12. Vygotsky, L. S. (1929). The Fundamentals of Defectology, V. 2 //

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