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Should Tennessee children accused of crimes be tried as adults?

A recent shooting calls to light the issues with trying children as adults in Tennessee.

In early October, an 11-year-old boy from Tennessee allegedly shot and killed an 8-year-old girl. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Jefferson County sheriff claims that the child shot the girl intentionally. The boy has been charged with delinquency by first-degree murder. Prosecutors are still deciding as to whether they will try the accused as an adult.

There are several issues with trying children as adults, ranging from biological factors to the dangers they face in the prison system. The justice system should take into account extenuating circumstances in order to treat youth fairly.

The statistics

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, there are approximately 3,000 children across the country who have been tried as adults and sentenced to life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. Further, there are 10,000 children who are in the adult prison system.

Unlike dozens of other states, Tennessee has no minimum age for trying a child as an adult. Therefore, it is up to the prosecution to determine how they will handle the case. Unfortunately, too many fail to take the following factors into consideration:

A developing brain

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that adolescent brains are simply not fully developed. While a young person's brain may have fully developed emotional responses, it has yet to enable the parts necessary to keep impulsive responses in check. Therefore, the institute reports, young people are much more likely to act on impulse without considering the risks associated with the behavior.

Dangers of prison

Prison can be a scary place for anyone, much less a child. According to the EJI, the following is true of children in adult prison systems versus those in juvenile systems:

  • Those in adult prisons are more likely to commit suicide.
  • Children in adult prisons are five times more likely to suffer a sexual assault.
  • Children who have been sentenced to adult prison with the option of parole often have trouble with re-entry because they have not learned basic life skills.

The EJI has argued time and again that for these reasons, treating children as adults is unconstitutional.

Not a deterrent

A PBS report notes that there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that treating children as adults in the criminal justice system does anything to reduce crime. Conversely, youths who were tried as adults and received harsh sentences were actually found to commit additional crimes sooner and more frequently than peers who had been through the juvenile system.

No matter how a Tennessee prosecutor chooses to try a young person, one thing is imperative: securing the appropriate defense. Anyone who has questions about the matter should consult with a criminal defense attorney.

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