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In March of 2001, a fourteen-year-old Florida boy named Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing six-year-old Tiffany Eunick during a wrestling match that took place when Lionel was twelve years old. Lionel was convicted of first degree murder on the ground that the killing was the result of aggravated child abuse, a crime that contemplates injury of a child by an adult caretaker. His conviction and sentence have prompted much debate and discussion – about his case and, more generally, about the criminal punishment of young offenders. Although the verdict and Lionel's sentence received considerable public support, many people are troubled by a justice system that sends a fourteen-year-old offender to prison for life. The debate is not about whether Lionel killed Tiffany, or even whether he represents a threat to public safety. Rather, the contested issue is whether adolescents who commit crimes should be subject to the same punishment as their adult counterparts.

This Essay addresses the question of how lawmakers should think about immaturity in assigning criminal punishment to young offenders. For reasons that have much to do with the peculiar history of juvenile justice policy, basic questions about the culpability of young law violators and the extent to which they can fairly be held responsible for their crimes have received surprisingly little attention in policy debates or in the academic literature. During most of the 20th century, young offenders were dealt with in a separate system that held to the view that the disposition of its charges was not governed by the criminal law. In the rhetoric of the traditional juvenile court, youths who committed crimes were blameless children in need of treatment; responsibility and punishment were not part of the vocabulary of juvenile justice. This model has become largely obsolete in the last generation. Since the late 1980s, a wave of punitive legal reform has brought many young offenders into the adult criminal justice system. These reforms are worrisome; they have been carried out in a highly politicized climate, driven by exaggerated public fears that seem to be reinforced by illegitimate racial attitudes. In the conceptual void created by traditional juvenile justice policy, important changes in the processing and punishment of this unique class of offenders have proceeded with little attention to the conventional constraints that limit punishment under criminal law doctrine and theory.


Juvenile Law | Law

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