Prosecution in youth cases too lenient

In Seattle only a year ago, a friendly street performer was beat to death by three unassociated and underage teens who, upon trial, were sentenced to only 72 weeks in juvenile detention because their ages kept them from being tried as adults. The brutal act appalled many Seattleites who were familiar with the “Tuba Man” Ed McMichael, but were more shocked by the leniency of the judge.

For many, this is an all too familiar situation: underage individuals committing crimes that would lock them up if they were a couple of years older, or even a few months. Yet, should there be a legalized limit of at what age a person can understand their actions? Surely American citizens do not simply gain a conscience on their eighteenth birthday.

Cultural stepping stones should not be used to determine whether an individual can be treated as an adult. Instead, it should be psychologically evaluated to determine a generalized, but flexible age that a citizen should be held accountable for the severity of their actions.

The age of adulthood in the United States is eighteen. However, the global standards of what constitutes adulthood are largely different. It is not just to assume that independent of age, teenagers lack the capacity to act and think as adults.

In developing countries with a lack of child labor laws and early marriage for females, the age of adulthood is understandably much earlier than ours, generally ranging from 12-14. However, in developed states, the minimum age of adulthood is 15-16.

Various factors legally determine “adulthood:” the right to marry, to vote, to enter military service, to drive, and to purchase and consume alcohol. In the United States, 16-year-old citizens may maneuver 4000lbs of steel around on busy streets and highways, yet they are not mature enough to rent a car until 25. Not to mention our ludicrous drinking age.

None of these factors justify being an adult, or being tried as an adult. That is a psychological issue that should be considered as such, instead of the legal ability to purchase alcohol.

By their teens, humans understand doubt, shame and guilt, all sensations felt after committing an atrocious crime. Unless the individual is psychologically unwell, as is often considered in adult cases, they inevitably experience these emotions.

Psychologist Erik Erikson developed typologies for stages of psychosocial development, stating that in the first year and a half of a child’s life it learns to trust or mistrust. Between one and three years old, a child experiences shame and doubt, and from roughly three to six years of age, a child learns guilt.

Erikson’s work claims that 6-year-olds understand that their actions have consequences, which is hard to deny when children are seen to be evading punishment after doing something wrong or openly expressing guilt after causing trouble.

If a child learns shame, doubt and guilt by the time he or she is six, then the ability to foresee consequences should be present by the teenage years.

A year after murdering Ed McMichael, one of the teens turned 18 and committed a robbery, for which he was treated and punished as an adult. A mild crime received full penalty in the adult world, while the teen’s earlier case of manslaughter simply got him a little over a year in juvenile detention. Supposedly, the teen was not mature enough at 17 years old to be guilty of murder, but a year later was fully convicted of robbery.

Even more than merely serving justice we must consider those who are targeted by the misled actions of teenagers. Ed McMichael’s murder is no less significant because the murderer was not an adult. It is almost more ludicrous that he could die at the hands of someone so young.

The prosecution of youth needs to be reevaluated, analyzing the psychological maturity of a suspect and holding them accountable for their illegal and violent actions.


  1. While the argument being made by Erinn, that the age limit between adulthood and adolescence is arbitrary, is true – the further point that she makes about criminal punishment being too lenient are false.
    Anyone even mildly knowledgeable about the United States justice systems knows that it is objectively the worst, most destructive, and violent system in the world. Even brutal tribal punishments don’t compare because their severity is restricted in scope and duration and because prisoners in the American system frequently face brutality (both systematic and accidental) that make stonings seem merciful.

    In the United States 1 in every 31 people are behind bars. 1 in every 20 men are behind bars and 1 in every 10 black men are behind bars. In some states, like Georgia, 1 in every 13 people are behind bars.

    No other country in the world has as many people behind bars as we do and counter-intuitively (or not) most of these other countries have far lower crime rates.

    Erinn here suggests that if our justice system was harder on crime for adolescents than it currently is that the murderous adolescents she described would not have gone on to commit further crimes. What is far more likely is that the 72 months that they spent behind bars for killing a man only exacerbated any condition they had prior to going to prison.
    Our system is set up to create recidivism because of the vengeance mindset that Erinn is espousing. There are little to no programs in prison that help rehabilitate individuals and they are created “tough on crime” individuals come along and close them down. For instance, a simple book club in a prison can reduce recidivism by up to half, but these programs get taken out because “book are too expensive” and because “books are a luxury.”

    Erinn seems to think that if only we were a little more vengeful, then crime would drop, but the real problem here is that the emotionally mechanical “blood for blood” form of justice that Erinn is espousing is the most self-destructive and dehumanizing system imaginable.

    1. Fatbactory,
      While you make decent points, that’s not how I interpreted the author’s view. It seemed to me that he was more focused on trying teenagers as adults, not addressing the justice or injustice of what goes on inside a prison. Personally, I didn’t get a “blood for blood” message from the piece, more of a insistence that the age at which citizens can be fully tried be lowered. If you see that as a vicious thing so be it. Compare (not the environment of detainment) a gender situation, should a female not be tried for murder because she’s a woman and obviously historically and socially women are docile? No. Should a 16 year old not be tried for murder because he/she is not able to vote?
      I see the point of the article as more a criticism of social and cultural stepping stones determining adulthood instead of psychological analyzes.

  2. Fatbactory could you bring up any more irrelevant information for your disagreement to this article ? You spit out a random assortment of numbers and statistics of people imprisoned in the united states claiming that anyone “mildly knowledgeable” should know. We all know our system of imprisonment is greatly flawed but that is NOT what this articles main focus is about. Neither is it about a “blood for blood” form of justice. Step off your high horse and stop nit picking before you jump into your ignorant rant. This was a simple straight forward article pointing out that a child should be held accountable for his or her actions if he/she is deemed aware of their decisions/actions. Which I strongly agree with.

    P.S. You’d be a great mud slinging politician fatbactory, your great at finding a tiny tid bit in an article and making it the main focus because you have no real reason to disagree with it. Your only real argument against it was your claim that it was “arbitrary” at which point you gave no reason of this and went into your fact filled argument about something that no one was talking about.
    People like you remind me why nothing in this country gets done.

  3. I did not miss the point of the article at all. The *point* of the article is, as the headline suggests, that prosecution in youth cases are “too lenient.” Erinn also makes the argument in her article that if the laws were harsher on people under 18 that people would be safer, which is what I found to be the most offensive.

    The article is not about holding children accountable for their actions, because the author’s whole point is that the people being put on trial are NOT children!

    The fact of the matter is that we have more people under the age of 18 serving life sentences in this country than any other country in the world. Our system is far from too lenient – in both youth and adult cases – and the sentences that youths get, while reduced, are still terribly severe.

    I do appreciate the ad hominum attacks against me though.

    1. Hello loyal readers! I’m excited that so many people read the trail and feel obligated to respond!
      Fatbactory, author here, since I AM the author, I’m aware of my argument and can say that you misinterpreted my intended point.
      I’d like to note that I do not title my articles, that is done by others.
      You’re right, they are NOT children, so should be held accountable for their actions. However, our society views them as children and so excuses them from being charged as adults. Which yes, I do see as wrong. I appreciate that you hold a strong point of view of the injustices of the justice system (like that phrasing?) It’s always good to support what you believe, which is exactly what I did with my article :)
      I personally DO believe that a 15 year old should be tried for murder as an adult, unless of course they have a justifiable claim to insanity (as is considered in adult cases).
      I realize that I hold a minority point of view, but I believe in a harsh justice system. I’m well aware that there is corruption and abuse within the prison system, but if they are truly guilty of murder, I have no issue with them suffering for their deeds.
      To be blunt, crime is on the rise, the population is expanding exponentially, death row doesn’t make me queasy.

      Remember, the opinions expressed by each author are not necessarily those of The Trail. Thank you for being interested enough to read and reply! I can’t wait for your responses to my next articles :)

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