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3 concerns that are unique to criminal cases involving juveniles

Unique issues that may arise in juvenile cases include false confessions, the limitations of the adolescent brain and the potential for adult prosecution.

In any given year, thousands of adolescents in San Antonio and other parts of Texas face potentially life-changing criminal charges. Per the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, in 2012, over 91,000 youth between ages 10 and 16 were arrested statewide. Due to the many differences between juveniles and adults, these juvenile cases often introduce various unique concerns. The following issues are especially crucial to take into account whenever juveniles are accused of criminal offenses.

1. Role of brain development

According to research, the factors that underlie juvenile delinquency and juvenile offenses are markedly different than the factors that underlie adult offenses. ABC News explains that while the emotional, impulsive part of the brain is well-developed during the teenage years, the portion that is responsible for judgment and logical reasoning is still maturing. Consequently, juveniles may exhibit the following traits and tendencies:

  • Aggressive or risk-taking behaviors
  • Vulnerability to peer pressure, stress and other external influences
  • Impulsiveness and exaggerated emotional responses

Furthermore, adolescents may tend to overlook the long-term consequences of a given course of action while overestimating the immediate rewards. These inclinations may make teens more likely to make inappropriate judgments and violate the law.

Given these findings, it is not surprising that criminal offenses during adolescence are not always correlated with lifelong recidivism. For example, as many as three out of four people who commit violent criminal offenses as adolescents do not do so as adults. It is critical that this potential for rehabilitation, along with the influence of the juvenile brain, be taken into account when juveniles are charged criminally.

2. Threat of false confessions

False confessions are a risk any time that someone faces wrongful accusations, but they are especially a concern in cases involving adolescents. According to The Wall Street Journal, the traits that can predispose teens to commit criminal offenses – including impetuousness and shortsightedness – can also put juveniles at risk for making false confessions. Compounding the issue, adolescents tend to be easily manipulated and more inclined to defer to authority figures.

One database of over 1,100 wrongly convicted individuals suggests that juveniles are several times more likely to give false confessions than adults. About 11 percent of the exonerated adults in the database gave these confessions. In contrast, the false confession rate among people who were younger than 18 when they were criminally charged was a shocking 38 percent.

3. Choice of justice system

Another unique factor during juvenile cases is the potential for the juvenile to be charged as such or as an adult. In Texas, juveniles who are as young as 14 years old may be transferred to adult court if they stand accused of certain felony offenses. Once a juvenile is charged as an adult, he or she must be tried in the same manner for any subsequent felonies that he or she is charged with.

The system that a juvenile is prosecuted under can be highly influential, as the juvenile and adult systems have markedly different goals. The juvenile system aims to rehabilitate adolescents, and consequently, it allows for options such as deferred sentencing, diversion programs and probation. The adult system, in contrast, focuses on punishment and deterrence. Therefore, juveniles who are tried as adults may face much more severe sanctions and long-term consequences.

Handling juvenile offenses

In light of the significant differences between juvenile and adult offenses, it is critical for adolescents who face criminal charges to secure the assistance of an attorney who has experience in these cases. An attorney may be able to help craft a persuasive defense that takes all of the above issues into account.