Why Are Children Treated Differently in Criminal Law?

Children under the age of eighteen are usually exempt from criminal prosecution.  Get a legal expert’s take on the juvenile justice system, and why children are sometimes tried as adults.

Adam Freedman
3-minute read

Generally, children under seven were simply immune to criminal prosecution, while children aged seven to 14 were presumed to be incapable of committing a crime, but a prosecutor could try to overcome that presumption.

Today, Minors are Treated as “Delinquents”

Technically, the infancy defense still exists in common law.  But it’s much less important because minors who break the law are generally handled in the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system.  All US states have established juvenile court systems.  In these systems, conduct that would be considered “criminal” if committed by an adult is instead defined as “delinquency.”

Rehabilitation or Responsibility

The original mission of the juvenile justice system was rehabilitation.  The idea was that young offenders still have time to learn the error of their ways and become productive members of society.  With the increase of violent crime among young teens; however, many state legislatures have modified their juvenile courts to emphasize protecting society from the juvenile delinquents.

When Are Minors Treated as Adults?

There has also been--as John points out in his question--a trend of transferring juvenile defendants to the criminal justice system.    Although juvenile courts have jurisdiction over youngsters until their 18th birthday, the law often allows judges to decline jurisdiction, which paves the way for the child to be transferred to the criminal courts.   


About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).