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December 5, 2023

Notable new Gallup polling on views about legal treatment of teens who commit violent crimes

Gallup released this new story about its latest polling on the treatment of juvenile offenders under the headline "Americans Divided on Treatment of Violent Juvenile Offenders."  Here are excerpts:

Americans divide evenly on whether the criminal justice system should treat teens who commit violent crimes the same as adults (46%) or give more lenient treatment in juvenile courts (47%).  This marks a shift in attitudes from two decades ago, when majorities of 65% in 2000 and 59% in 2003 felt juveniles aged 14 to 17 who commit crimes should be treated the same as adult criminals.

The latest results are from Gallup’s annual Crime survey, conducted Oct. 2-23.  The issue of how violent juveniles should be treated is increasingly relevant given the increase in mass shootings, particularly at U.S. schools, with the majority of K-12 school shootings perpetrated by children under age 18....

The views of Democrats, independents and younger adults have changed more than the opinions of Republicans and older adults.  However, all key subgroups show some movement away from believing that violent juvenile offenders should be treated the same as adults.  In fact, in 2000, the various political party and age subgroups generally held similar views, with between 60% and 68% of each believing juveniles should be treated the same as adults.

As a result of the disproportionate changes in opinion, Democrats and adults under age 50 now come down on different sides of the debate than Republicans and older Americans do.  Majorities of Democrats (61%) and adults under age 50 (56%) believe 14- to 17-year-olds who commit violent crimes should get more lenient treatment in a juvenile court, while majorities of Republicans (59%) and adults over age 50 (53%) believe such teens should be treated the same as adults. Political independents are evenly divided on the issue.

College graduates tend to believe juveniles should get more lenient treatment in the justice system, while those without a college degree tend to think juveniles should be treated like adults.  Parents of children under 18 (54%) are more likely than non-parents (45%) to favor teens receiving more lenient treatment in juvenile court....

Criminal justice statistics indicate that fewer young offenders are being tried as adults today than in the past.  Many states with separate juvenile justice systems have changed laws so children under age 18 are no longer automatically charged as adults for certain crimes.  Those laws may have changed because of a new understanding of adolescent development, a greater realization of the role poor mental health can play in teen criminal activity, and the possibility that young people with a criminal history can be rehabilitated.

December 5, 2023 at 10:54 PM | Permalink


The level of violence is relevant here.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Dec 5, 2023 11:29:09 PM

Legislatures and Congress have been slow in revising the criminal laws for juveniles to take into account the growing scientific and neurological evidence that juveniles and young adults are less culpable, because their brains don't finish developing until age 25-26 years old. Laws should reflect society's scientific knowledge and judgment.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Dec 6, 2023 1:13:03 PM

"Americans divide evenly on whether the criminal justice system should treat teens who commit violent crimes the same as adults (46%) or give more lenient treatment in juvenile courts (47%)."

Younger people and first offenders (partly overlapping categories) already get more lenient treatment than older people/repeat customers. And this has been true for a long time.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2023 10:39:12 PM

The problem with surveys like this is using buzz words and undefined terms. (Of course, that generally translates into campaign sound bites which then drives legislative changes with little consideration of what is really happening in the court system.)

I think if most people understood the status quo, we would probably see some support for some tinkering around the edges with little desire for significant changes. In my state (and based on my understanding this is true for most states), the default presumption is that 14-17 year old offenders should be handled by juvenile courts. For certain offenses, the juvenile court must consider whether, based on the totality of the circumstances (the alleged offense and the juveniles prior history), this offender needs to be in adult court instead. For other offenses, it is theoretically possible for the juvenile court to be asked to consider transferring the case to adult court but that rarely happens.

Because the survey only gives folks two options -- basically always in juvenile court or always in adult court -- it misses the middle ground that is the current legal regime. My hunch is that most people would feel that some but not all of these cases should be in juvenile court and that some but not all of these cases should be in adult court. The real issue is where the line should be and how strong the presumption in favor of juvenile court should be (as well as procedural issues). I don't think this survey gets to these issues.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 7, 2023 10:30:12 AM

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