Children under the age of 14 are protected in virtually every area of the law, except when it comes to the criminal justice system. Over the last 25 years, very young children have been prosecuted as adults in increasing numbers and subjected to very harsh adult sentences. Prosecuting underage children as adults is not only incompatible with the capabilities of young children, but also traumatizing, abusive, cruel, and unusual.
Young children are developmentally incapable of exercising the judgment, maturity, and knowledge necessary to competently defend themselves against criminal prosecution in adult court. The United States Supreme Court has developed clear guidelines for insuring that adults are competent before they are subjected to criminal prosecution, but courts have not developed rules that address the unique characteristics of children, leaving child defendants vulnerable and at great risk in adult court.
Thirteen states in the United States have no minimum age for trying children as adults. Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia have no minimum age for adult prosecution. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. Some states set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13.
Consistent with what adolescent development experts have taught and with what teachers, parents, and child advocates appreciate, young children cannot be prosecuted fairly as adults. EJI believes that the adult prosecution of any child under age 14 for any crime should be banned.