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Is a 14-Year Old an Adult? May 31, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Earlier in the week 14-year old Heather D’Aoust, Scripps Ranch (north of San Diego), grabbed a claw hammer, attacked her mother, and succeeding in bludgeoning her so severely that she died the next day. If you go back a few days to a previous article, you’ll find that neighbors described the mother as devoted to her daughter, and that the daughter was a shy girl. Her father argued in court Thursday that his daughter is sick and needs help. However, the court decided to try her as an adult, with the possible sentence of 30 years in prison. The legal part of this story is a web of rules about charging juveniles as adults, and about criminal adults who are deemed to be mentally incompetent, but apparently there is some doubt about what might happen to a juvenile charged as an adult who is found to be mentally incompetent. In the article (link above) we hear from her father and her lawyer why she should be considered a child with a mental issue, but we hear very little about why the court made their decision, other than it was “closely examined,” and that 48 juveniles have been charged as adults by the court since 2001. The greater picture is that we have seen an increase over the last 15-20 years in the tendency to charge older children who commit serious crimes as adults, under the assumption that at that age they know “right from wrong,” and they should be held accountable (a deontological argument), and in addition, they are a danger to society (a utilitarian argument). Coincidentally, I read in a European newspaper that one of the large political parties is proposing a lowering of the age where kids can be charged as adults to 12-14, so as not to give young violent gang members a free pass. But I doubt that they intend to cast the net so wide that it covers family disputes with tragic endings.

So there really are two issues here: The general tendency of charging juveniles as adults, and Heather’s specific situation. Throw into the mix that some people suspect there is a political motive (“tough on crime”) behind the court’s decision. I’d hurry to say that what we, as readers, can glean from this can only be generalities, since we don’t know everything the court knows about Heather and the family dynamics (and whatever is irrelevant to the court is none of our business, anyway), and we may not know more until the preliminary hearing, supposedly in September.

Be that as it may, I’m interested in the principles involved: Should a juvenile be considered an adult by the sheer force of principle, due to the severity of her crime? Or should it be her underlying mindset that determines her court status? Her action shows a clear intent to harm—but is it the intent of a child, or an adult? Which leads to the general question what purpose punishment is supposed to serve; Heather’s father and her lawyer seem to think the main purpose is to rehabilitate her, but most people these days view punishment as a matter of (1) deterrence, (2) protection of the public, or (3) a simple matter of retribution. On the personal level, this is a tragic family situation. On the social level, it looks as if  it may become a case study that allows us to examine some of our basic assumptions about justice.



1. Dwight Furrow - June 1, 2008

The first thing that comes to mind is that trying juveniles as adults is inherently unjust. If we are all entitled to a jury of our peers, and teenagers are not allowed to serve on juries, then teenagers are deprived on one important right that the rest of us enjoy.

2. forrest noble - June 1, 2008

In California there is the California Youth Authority. When tried as a juvenile, an offender can be held until his or her 21st birthday, and if they are a hard case in captivity sometimes they can be held until their 25th birthday. It would seem that most often few juvenile offenders would fit into the adult prison system without being seriously bullied, molested, raped or worse. If an offender has a serious mental problem, whether juvenile or adult, there are special institutions to treat as well as incarcerate the criminally “insane”.

One of the above institutions would seemingly be most appropriate for such juvenile offenders. The DA’s office might, in some cases, opt for prosecution as an adult where the length of time that a juvenile might serve would be thought to be too short for a multiple murder or other horrific crime for instance. For those cases the law might be changed to transfer 18 year olds in the juvenile system to an adult prison for the rest of a prescribed term.

It would never seem appropriate for a juvenile to be tried as an adult and at 14, go to an adult prison even though, as the article pointed out, the possibilities and fact is that some unfortunately do. Another change of the law might provide that the appropriate sentence could be equated to the equivalent adult crime but the sentence would be first served in a juvenile facility.

your friend forrest

3. Huan - June 2, 2008

Isn’t it biologically factual that frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until age 20 something? Therefore judgement naturally is not fully developed, especially at the age of 14. One could argue that even a 6 year old knows right from wrong, I doubt many six year olds thinks severely injuring people with blunt objects is not wrong. This “right from wrong” argument heavily misuses human moral behavior I’d say, simply knowing right from wrong doesn’t guarantee comprehension or padded inhibition, or anything that prevents an adult from bludgeoning their mother.

Why expect the carpenter to create great pieces of work when his tool isn’t fully functional?

4. Dwight Furrow - June 2, 2008

Huan is right. Recent research by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that the areas of the brain that regulate impulse control are not fully developed until the early 20’s. The issue is not about “knowing right from wrong” but of using that knowledge to influence behavior.

I think Forrest is correct that the purpose of trying an adolescent in adult courts is to permit a longer sentence. Juveniles convicted of crimes seldom serve after turning 21. So if a crime warrants a longer sentence they need to be tried in adult courts, though I don’t think they serve their sentence in adult prisons until they turn 21.

So the issue then is whether serious crimes committed by adolescents deserve long prison terms? For a deontologist, you should be convicted of a crime only if you are responsible for it. The data on impulse control suggests that, at least in some cases, adolescents are not fully responsible for their actions. But I would imagine impulse control is a highly context -sensitive capacity and it may be hard to sort out in particular cases whether a young person intended to commit the crime or not. This suggests that some discretion on the part of DA’s, hopefully informed by psychological data, is the right policy.

The data on impulse control also suggests that, for teenagers, rehabilitation is in many cases a real possibility. There is reason to think that as the brain matures, given proper treatment, they will be less likely to commit a similar crime. This would support a utilitarian approach–it would be best for everyone involved if the crimimal is rehabilitated and becomes a functioning member of society. But if this is the proper approach, we should never put people convicted of crimes in their adolescence in adult prisons since adult prisons are nothing but warehouses that incubate criminality.

I have never been able to make sense of the deontological view that rehabilitation is irrelevent. If a murder victim’s life is wasted, why is it better to waste two lives, if the criminal can be rehabilitated?

Of course, that just raises the question of whether we devote sufficient resources to rehabilitation. Given recidivism rates the answer is clearly no. That is just more evidence that we live in a culture of indifference.

5. forrest noble - June 3, 2008

Hey Huan, Dwight, I agree with both of you comments.

Just a note:

There really are yougens in adult prisons here in the U.S.

A Google search for “minimum age in adult prisons” I found the following:

“Recent changes in some State laws have enabled more juveniles charged with serious, violent offenses to be transferred to adult courts. As a result, a larger number of youths are being sentenced as adults and incarcerated in adult prisons. These changes are affecting both juvenile detention facilities, where many youthful offenders await transfer to adult prisons, and the adult prisons as well, where administrators must find ways to incorporate this different population.”

All of the states have some means of transferring juveniles to adult criminal courts, and later if convicted, to adult prisons. The transfer is made either because of the nature of the crime, or at the discretion of the juvenile judge or a prosecutor.

“……. the minimum age for such transfers differs from state to state:

• It ranges from 10-years in Kansas and Vermont to 15-years in New Mexico — with 22 states and the District of Columbia stipulating no minimum age.
• Since 1992, 45 states have enacted laws making it easier to transfer juveniles to adult courts.
• That has led to a doubling of juveniles under 18 doing time in an adult facility since 1985.
• One in 10 of the 85,000 juveniles now incarcerated on any given day is serving a sentence in an adult prison (March 2000)”

Our girl above will possibly end up in a mental institution. Such a crime by a girl against her mother, at that age, suggests to me possible insanity at the time of the crime, granted with only cursory knowledge.

92 countries have signed treaties against juvenile incarceration (under 18) with adults with only two abstaining, the U.S. and U.S. Samoa.

Personally don’t perceive us as the bad guys, but we are seemingly out of step with the times and the rest of the world in this and other apparent ways.

your friend forrest

6. forrest noble - June 3, 2008

Don’t know how that happy face popped up? Honestly I’m not that crude.

7. Nina Rosenstand - June 4, 2008

Good points, great research! Much appreciated. Dwight, the “jury of one’s peers” issue is of course open to interpretation, inasmuch as a criminal usually is not judged by his or her “peers” in the strictest sense, anyway (some philosopher pointed out, tongue in cheek, that we don’t conduct a voir dire seeking out rapists to sit on a rape trial jury, or get drunks to judge a drunk driver), but if we take it to mean a citizen in good standing, in the broad meaning I assume it was intended, then juveniles on trial may not be any more disenfranchised than other defendants who don’t see “anyone like them” on the jury. And Huan and Dwight, the issue of only holding sane people accountable is one of those nasty begging-the-question issues, isn’t it? Who do we hold accountable? Sane people. Well, who is sane? Those we choose to hold accountable… If the capacity to foresee the consequences of one’s actions is the criterion for being held accountable in court, then many people in addition to the immature adolescent brains will be disqualified as moral agents. And the point of deontology/retributivism? I assume Kant would say that attempted rehabilitation shows disrespect for the criminal’s conscious choice, trying to change him or her in the image of society, instead of showing them respect for their choice, and locking them up (or executing them). For a deontologist the rehabilitation of juveniles would be acceptable, I presume, precisely because they don’t warrant the respect that people with adult minds ought to be shown. Remember that Kant has a category for people who are not quite persons, but not things, either! (Another can of worms.) And Forrest, thanks for the data and the numbers, they corroborate my general impression (and we’ll disregard the happy face!). I think there was a case where the young perpetrator stood trial as an adult, but was punished as a juvenile. I think he may just have been released. But overall, it appears that we agree that judging adolescents as adults is a problematic trend. That being said, I also have misgivings about the other extreme, tried in Scandinavia in the ’70s, where just about all crimes were considered results of social tensions, and all criminals capable of being rehabilitated. Which turned out not to be the case.

8. jo - June 22, 2008

read this petitio and sign it, support heather so she can get teh help she needs.

9. forrest noble - June 23, 2008


Depending on the details of the crime and psychiatrist’s observations of Heather, if they believe that she could have been insane at the time of the crime, her lawyer may likely plead not guilty by reason of insanity and the DA will most likely go along with it if there are also Psychiatrist’s indications. With an adult commitment, she would serve the appropriate sentence in a mental institution, probably a juvenile facility. If they believe she had benefited from treatment she could be out in seven to 10 years. As a juvenile I don’t believe the sentence would be different. If they adjudge her as sane, she might only be facing a second degree murder charge unless they have evidence of premeditation. This might be only a 5 year sentence based upon all the crime circumstances, her prior history, and her behavior while incarcerated, again probably in a juvenile segregated facility.

I also see the possibility of a longer sentence in a mental institution if she were tried as a juvenile which of course might be a good thing for her as well as society if she has lingering indications of mental illness. In truth, if she continues to display symptoms of serious mental illness after an adult or juvenile commitment, she may never get out of a mental institution.

your friend forrest

10. jo - June 23, 2008

I see the point forrest,but i read theres a hospital for adults only, i think if it were my kid, i say”five yrs in the hall,house arresst for another five and probation five and she must remain in someoens care,or a care giver, go to mental health help, see a counselker on a hoem visit,takes her meds and behave”give her a chance to lead a normal productive life at least, read teh petition and sign it, maybe if i get enough people to sign it, da. dumanis would have a change of heart and see it from the other side,thats all i ask.

11. jo - June 23, 2008
12. forrest noble - June 24, 2008


To sign such a petition I would need a lot more info. I’m not sure, as I stated above, that this is not the proper decision. Being charged as an adult might provide for more money being spent to analyze her situation, past crimes if any, mental evaluations etc. which might ultimately provide more justice for all parties. A shorter or longer sentence would be neither good nor bad. It depends entirely on all the finest details of the case and in-depth mental evaluations. I appreciate your concern as an adoptee, but she may not be the exactly person you believe her to be.

Violent murder is a very severe crime, seldom committed by an innocent. If she serves her time in a mental institution for such a violent crime she will be segregated. In her case it would seem that only the sentence would be an adult equivalent, not the institution.

If she is adjudged as sane and tried as an adult, I think she might only spend 5 years in the prison system (second degree murder) for her crime, unless she has a prior history of crime. The DA might be doing this only to make a point. It might be a shorter sentence then if she were convicted as a juvenile, which would probably be a minimum of 7 years until she turns 21 with good behavior.

your friend forrest

13. jo - June 24, 2008

30 yrs to life is what she might get.I can’t see heather spending time in adult jail as she is mentally ill, i don’t believe in useing someone for more money to get treatments, thats sick.
My mothers cousinw as in and out of jail, he was mentally ill bad, the help he recieved never helped it wasn’t effective and he died yrs later on a street in the rain.
I can not sit by and allow a 15 yrs old who may not known what she did till after it happened to spend her life in a jail, institution or whatever if nobodies going to give her any chance to elad a productive life.

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