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

State law will govern the criteria for transferring minors to criminal court.  Alabama law, for example, lists six factors that courts are to consider:

1. The nature of the present offense;

2. The extent and nature of the prior delinquency record of the child;

3. Past treatment efforts and the child’s response to such efforts;

4. The child’s demeanor;

5. The physical and mental maturity of the child; and

6. The interest of the community and the child.

Relying on these factors, the Alabama Court of Appeals upheld a decision to try a 15-year-old as an adult on charges of murder and robbery, where the child had previously threatened school and law enforcement personnel.  In one rather extreme case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court implied that it might be possible to try a nine-year-old as an adult for pre-meditated murder of a classmate.  

Under the Model Penal Code--a privately drafted code which is used as a source for state legislatures in reforming their laws--children under the age of 16 would not be eligible for trial as an adult , period.  Those aged 16 and 17 could be transferred from juvenile to criminal court in certain circumstances.  It should be noted, however, that the Model Code was drafted in 1962--long before the rash of teen violence that began to escalate in the 1990s.

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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).