Youth in Adult Court

About This Issue

While the Gault Center’s work focuses on the representation of youth in the delinquency system, many defenders must represent youth in both adult and juvenile court, as the number of youth tried as adults has increased drastically over the past two decades. This trend runs contrary to the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system. Even states that have dedicated youth-focused court systems have mechanisms for moving children out of those systems and into adult courts, subjecting them to adult procedures and adult sentences.

The United States Supreme Court has issued a series of opinions ruling that children, even those in adult court, must be treated differently in the context of sentencing. First, in 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court held that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for a crime committed by a child under the age of 18. Then, in 2010, the Court’s opinion in Graham v. Florida held that it is unconstitutional to sentence someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime committed under the age of 18. Finally, in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court found it unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence on someone who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.

Our Position

Youth being tried in adult court are even more vulnerable to the worst of the criminal legal system. They are not subject to many of the protections, including the focus on rehabilitation, inherent in proceedings in youth-focused courtrooms. That is why defenders representing  youth in the adult system must ensure that the procedures comply with due process, that their clients are treated fairly, and that their clients still receive the services and education they need and deserve.

Defenders must fight for courts to uphold the rulings in Graham, Roper, and Miller. Defenders should also look for opportunities to extend the protections of those cases to protect clients to whom those decisions do not directly apply.

Defenders should also advocate that any child client who is being tried as an adult be placed in a juvenile facility, as youth in adult facilities are far more susceptible to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

The Gault Center provides training for defenders who represent youth in adult courts. The Center also regularly participates in amicus brief work related to Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP).