Trying Juveniles as Adults – A New Solution for an Old Problem

By Stephen Owsinski:

Some run with the devil, others wing it with the angels. Some self-correct, others go far astray. A few catch themselves before being caught by the law. An upbringing may be stellar, yet anomalies arise. The dynamics of juvenile justice can be complex, and cops know this all too well. As a nation, which remedies are best regarding kids’ behavior and criminal misdeeds?

In its second effort, the state of Connecticut is weighing legislation to raise the adult age of trying those involved in criminality to 21, citing psychological implications that play a vital role in juvenile behavior. Specifically, Connecticut lawmakers are considering not trying juveniles as adults since their reasoning capacity is deemed underdeveloped, requiring more maturation. It’s not a free ride, however. With the exemption of major crimes such as murder, sexual assault, and crimes involving firearms, all others under 21 will have a smoother ride and not necessarily have the judge’s book thrown at them. Minor criminal cases will meet diversion programs (nothing new) and afford youngsters alternatives to jail time while also reducing juvenile justice costs (detention).

Connecticut is just one of several states that have already changed the adult age of adjudication from 16 to 18, seeking to once again increase the age of responsibility, thus circumventing prison life and its inherent hardening of individuals. Hopefully, “kids” will use the added time wisely and adhere to proper behavioral traits.

At its core, refraining from trying juveniles as adults is premised on implementing rehabilitative and restorative efforts with applications in education, life skills, supervision, counseling, and employment to objectively preempt recurrence—in essence, empowering youngsters to make better choices before the penal institutions become a rather permanent part of their lives dissuades them from criminality. The choice to act with a maladjusted mind often has dire consequences, primarily leading to a lengthy (or life) sentence behind bars. Parolees whose reintegration in society results in feeling ostracized may revert to criminality, culminating in re-incarceration. Examining age assists in creating age-appropriate judgments.

Juvenile Justice Study Findings

Researchers with the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government are behind the step-by-step program influencing the Connecticut adult age changes. The study revealed the implications of age-related correlates among juveniles and their tendency to act out (boredom, peer pressure, curiosity, learned behavior, etc.)—common catalysts transcending non-criminal behavior.

Parent or non-parent alike, universally-speaking, kids need to be occupied constructively before their minds wander and engage life destructively. The criminal justice system will not have to pick up the pieces if parents guide their children appropriately. However, certainly there may be exceptions to the rule.

Mark Wahlberg’s Legacy

It was a Catholic priest who turned Mark Wahlberg around. Yes, he was once a bad boy. Prior to the clergy, Wahlberg was a street rumbler, gang member, and all-around violent individual from early on. Products of divorced working-class parents, several of his siblings also opted for criminal behavior. After years of juvenile delinquency and committing many violent crimes, Mark Wahlberg was convicted and served prison time. Turning to a priest, Wahlberg reconstructed his life, left street thuggery and all its negative influences, and achieved stardom (and millions). He modeled his chiseled looks for Calvin Klein ads, joined New Kids On the Block, created hip hop group Marky Mark, acts in major motion pictures, produces movies, co-owns athletic clubs, and partners with his brothers in the famous Wahlburgers restaurant chain (which he also made into a reality TV show). By Wahlberg’s legacy, we see how things can go horribly wrong as well as how turning life around can become a positive force, all before the age of 21.

In a USA Weekend interview in 2011, during which he emphasized why he took his children to his old stomping grounds of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Wahlberg stated, “I want them to know that not everyone is as fortunate and how important it is to work hard and give back.” Yes, indeed, sometimes we see the light. Wahlberg completed academic credits and received his high school diploma in 2013. Sometimes going forward in reverse is not such a bad thing.

Love him or not, Mark Wahlberg underscores his poor choices as a kid and how redemptive measures and positive role models can have tremendous impacts. In 2001, Wahlberg started the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which raises and distributes money to youth services and juvenile enrichment entities.

Once paroled from prison, Wahlberg’s statement summed up the nature of this article:

As soon as I began that life of crime, there was always a voice in my head telling me I was going to end up in jail. Three of my brothers had done time. My sister went to prison so many times I lost count. Finally I was there, locked up with the kind of guys I’d always wanted to be like. Now I’d earned my stripes and I was just like them, and I realized it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I’d ended up in the worst place I could possibly imagine and I never wanted to go back. First of all, I had to learn to stay on the straight and narrow.

That is when he consulted a priest and was saved from certain self-destruction.

Although I disagree with many of Mr. Wahlberg’s life activities, I do applaud him for the courage to reverse course and go full steam ahead with positive virtues, ultimately serving as a role model for youngsters walking the fine line.

The Chasm Between Adult and Juvenile Justice

Unambiguously, permanency is the difference between having a juvenile criminal record and an adult one. Legally permissible, expunged criminality as a juvenile erases most behavior prior to a certain age—exceptions are major crimes such as homicide. As mentioned earlier, that is not the case with respect to adult criminal behavior; those blemishes remain indelible and have far-reaching ramifications, such as denial of certain advantages—mortgages, credit cards, automobile loans, educational grants, and employment are often out of reach because of criminal history. The stigma follows, and addled convicts are severely and chronically scrutinized, culminating in a grim life with bleak prospects. The price we pay for bad decisions can be infinitely punitive.

Advancing the age to 21 can offset the bondage tied to criminality, which also offers societal implications. Making mistakes that hamper the remainder of life is tantamount to virtual banishment, depriving the opportunity to rebound in positive constructs. Albeit vicariously, it also deprives violators’ families from having the traditional family values inherent in bringing up children and role-modeling. Despite assertions that a criminal past depicts poor role modeling, a contrary view is that a legacy of violating laws helps children to know what not to do, especially when influenced by a dedicated parent or guardian. Wahlberg’s legacy symbolizes this point quite well. There is no denying the contextual polarity between the dos and don’ts of human behavior.

So it makes sense to extend the measuring stick, recalibrate variables, and preclude stigmatization by engendering behavior modifications and ideal capabilities, as well as a listening ear to those who may be faltering.

“Emerging Adults” Concept

A concept known as “emerging adults,” which embraces raising the age of adult criminality to 21, stems from psychology precepts. The “emerging adults” theory holds that the older a person is, the more reasoning capacity is present. Some call it maturity, the phases Mark Wahlberg experienced the hard way. At its root is a mindset adequately wired with principles to know when to say “No!” To some degree, it mimics former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” mantra. Recognizing and abstaining from criminal behavior is generally accompanied by virtues of morality, ethics, integrity, aptitude, and a host of other positive attributes. Essentially, an “emerging adult” should have all the building blocks to not only mold a crime-free life but also discern between right and wrong.

A family member of mine is a child and adolescent psychiatry practitioner. Many of her young clients’ problems stem from family. Moms, dads, older siblings, and uncles often trigger certain socially unacceptable behaviors in children right under the family roof. Chronic examples are physical and sexual abuses. Young brains are still developing and highly impressionable—good and bad connotations apply. Racking the psyche with sordid, indelible experiences encumbers youngsters with psychological baggage. Sadly, some kids act out in later years, becoming another statistic. Counseling becomes paramount. Some reconfigure their barbaric experiences into formidable catalysts for change. Others confront that fork in the road and go the other way, channeling anger in ways culminating in more anger, and consequently, criminality.

Generally, the courts usually grant the benefit of the doubt to youthful offenders, recognizing their evolving reasonability and maladjusted responsibility. Simply put, additional time-outs may be the justified buffer before/after little Johnny embraces a juggernaut or precious Mary is enamored with mayhem.

Intellectual Humility

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers evaluated the limits of knowledge in humans and how we tend to reason with and accept growth by regulating our ego. Dubbed “intellectual humility,” scientists arrived at the notion that, when confronted with real or perceived deficiencies, folks who reach out for help and listen attentively to lessons garner the necessary grace and humility to extend their horizons and thus reap dividends. Conversely, as is often seen in narcissists and psychopaths, egocentrics supplant grace and humility, resulting in abusive behavior and absolute arrogance, with malice as a force multiplier.

Do we have the building blocks from an early age, naturally, to reason right from wrong? Or is nurturance an inroad to curtail poor behavior and stay above the waterline (out of prison)? Is it a combination of both, premised on nature versus nurture theory?

Notwithstanding any particular answer, we can always be ready to guide and/or reset those who may have derailed from social norms and expectations (law abidance). The toggle between head and heart is omnipresent in each of us, and a stalwart, experienced role model is critical.

The Missing (or Not So Missing) Ingredient

Although it is commendable to give youngsters the benefit of the doubt, the main ingredient is parenting. Like mortar to a mason, the facilitators of every child’s formative years and the framework for solid human existence are parents. Moms and dads are primarily responsible for molding decent human beings from day one. Parents are holding the torch and must instill positive character traits, skills, values, integrity, and methods of reconciliation for kids to emulate throughout life. Frankly, there is no epilogue in the book of child-rearing. As long as lungs are pumping air, lessons ought to follow, despite chronological age.


I can appreciate forward-thinking concepts in our criminal justice system and have every bit of hope that Connecticut’s model will provide intended dividends. I spent a considerable part of my life policing streets and know how depraved and deranged humans can become. It is the baby steps that are most important in every single life. Any fractious component must be mended immediately, before delinquency infiltrates young minds and spawns nefarious activities. Proverbially, angels and devils are on opposing shoulders with a brain in the middle, and a focused family can steer minds to righteous, fertile grounds. Nature versus nurture theory has viable features, and consistency is a key factor, providing we invest in the belief in the inherent goodness of the human species.

Nevertheless, should things somehow go awry, affording a fighting chance has value. Let’s hope youngsters see it the same way and seize the enormous advantage being provided. I’ve handcuffed some brilliant kids in the course of police duty and often wondered where it went south. Some were boisterous, and others clammed up after being handcuffed in the back of a police car. Some cussed the back of my head, others sobbed uncontrollably while pleading for forgiveness.

Quintessentially, wage-earning wonder-kids are ideal. Productive members of society and success stories emanate from poor beginnings at times. Resolve trumps recalcitrance, as was exemplified in Mark Wahlberg’s story.

Hopefully, the Connecticut model will serve as a litmus test, proving that human beings’ lives are always salvageable.

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit.  He is currently a researcher and writer.

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Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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