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Should juvenile-vs-adult charges feature a precise age threshold?

On Behalf of | Dec 3, 2019 | Criminal Defense |

A recent Colorado media article stresses one state legislator’s desire to materially flip the criminal charging equation for one specific group of individuals.

Namely, that is the demographic comprising young people who are over the age of 18 and criminally sentenced as adult offenders despite still displaying a juvenile mindset.

Rep. Serena Gonzalez-Guttierez (D-Denver) is not advancing a notion that legions of people already agree with, namely, modified sentencing standards for defendants who lack mental competence. She is instead arguing on behalf of a more mainstream group of Coloradans aged 18-25 who have been convicted as adults on non-violent felony charges (e.g., drug possession).

Gonzalez-Guttierez says that adult sentencing flatly disserves many of those individuals, as well as their families and surrounding communities, for a reason directly related to science.

“The prefrontal cortex, the decision-making center, is not fully developed until around the age of 25,” she recently stated in remarks that have kindled a vigorous criminal justice debate.

The bottom-line take Gonzalez-Gutierrez espouses is this: Many defendants who are technically adults for purposes of criminal sentencing still rationally lack the full mental capacity associated with adulthood. Sentencing them under the same terms and conditions as charged offenders who are often decades older is both irrational and unfair.

Many psychologists, behavioral analysts and mental health experts largely agree with the representative’s view and the argument that criminal law outcomes should not so closely hinge on a precise age threshold. And they can readily subscribe to Gonzalez-Guttierez’ view that adjustments should not be universally mandated, but limited to select offenses committed that were demonstrably nonviolent.

Unsurprisingly, though, there is backlash and a stated need for more debate and greater precision surrounding eligibility components that would figure into select sentencing reappraisals. One state prosecutor notes that some non-violent offenses actually involve violent behavior, such as burglary and vehicular homicide. He also states that, “Most sex offenses are not considered crimes of violence under [Colorado] law.”

Gonazez-Guttierez says she is amenable to further debate and “addressing any concerns” necessary to fine tune her proposal and forge revision that will better promote justice for many young offenders.

Those individuals “sometimes need a second chance to get it together,” she says.