Issues regarding the age of culpability journal

Virginia Legislature

Should the age at when a juvenile can be tried as an adult be lowered from 16 to 14 years old in the state of Virginia?

Currently, the Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would reduce the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult from 16 years to 14 years old. Lawmakers must tackle the difficult task of balancing the welfare of juvenile offenders with protection of public interests. This research examines the difficulties faced by lawmakers. The following outlines the proposed work plan of the study.

This decision will have a significant impact on a vast number of people. Therefore, a multifaceted approach will be taken in order to make the best decision for everyone involved. It will attempt to determine how public opinion plays into the decision. In keeping the best interests of the public in mind, this research study will examine public opinion on the topic. It will also seek to evaluate the opinions of expert researchers in the field. It will survey the opinions and practical advice of those who deal with juveniles who have committed serious offenses on a daily basis. It will examine the impact of the decision on the prison system as well.

The Research Question

The question of trying juveniles as an adult, even when they have committed heinous crimes is a highly controversial practice that draws a plethora of public opinion on both sides of the issue. The primary research question of this study will be, “Should the age at when a juvenile can be tried as an adult be lowered from 16 to 14 years old in the state of Virginia?” The primary objective of the research will be to act as guidance for the Virginia legislature regarding whether they should adopt legislation lowering the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult, or whether it should remain the same as it is today.

In order to provide a definitive answer to the primary research question, several other research questions must be addressed.

What position does a majority of public opinion favor regarding lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as an adult in Virginia?

What affects do researchers in the field predict if the decision is made to lower the age at which juveniles can be tried as an adult in Virginia?

What is the theoretical basis for the opinions of these researchers?

What will the impact of the legislation be on juveniles in the system, according to those that work with them on a daily basis?

These research questions will be the guiding force in the development of the research methodology.


The research questions will provide a roadmap leading to the final resolution of the issue facing the Virginia legislature. The research will support the following hypotheses.

H1: The minimum age at which youth in Virginia should be tried as an adult should not be lowered from 16 to 14.

This hypothesis was derived from research on adolescent and youth development and their ability to fully realize the consequences of their actions.

Theoretical Framework

The human child is not born as a fully developed miniature of the adult of our species. Children continually learn new skills and social roles as they grow up. Much of this learning comes from adult role models. The first social learning skill that a child learns is to mimic the actions and sounds of an adult. However, at some point in their development, they begin to think, reason, and make decisions about their actions. The real question surrounding whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult is when the age of reasoning occurs. The question is when children gain the ability to discern right from wrong and understand the short- and long-term consequences of their actions. The preliminary premise of this research study is based on the psychological differences between adolescents and adults and on numerous neurological studies that support these positions.

Trying juveniles as adults presumes that the child is of age to understand both the immediate and long-term consequences of their actions. However, research demonstrates that the horizon of consequence is much shorter for adolescents than for adults. For instance, one study found that adolescents can only perceive events that will happen a few days into the future (Deerin, p. C1). Adolescents are more likely to react with emotion in a stressful situation than an adult would (Taylor-Thompson, p. 155).

These differences are supported by findings from neuroscience as well. MRI studies have found that the features of the brain that are responsible for controlling emotional reactions and reasoning are much less developed in adolescents than in adults (ABA, p. 2). The frontal lobe of the human brain, which determines ability to long-term planning and reason does not fully mature until around age 20-21 (ABA, p. 2). In addition, the turbulent hormone reactions of youth further complicate the ability of youths to make rational decisions (ABA, p. 2).

Psychological research on adolescent development, in addition to research on neurological immaturity of the brain are the key theories that form the basis of this research study. The study is grounded in theories regarding human development from the fields of psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, as well as studies in the criminal justice field.

Literature Review

When one examines the history of the issue, literature reveals that the idea of establishing separate courts for juvenile offenders dates back to 1899 in Illinois (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, p. 4). However, until the 1970s, children accused of crimes were only brought before juvenile courts (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, p. 4). There were exceptions to the rule, but these were rare. However, the mid-1980s gave rise to a new disturbing trend in adolescent crime. Homicide rates committed by those between the ages of 14-17 rose dramatically (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, p. 4). In response to these trends laws were passed in 1986 that allowed youth that had committed violent crimes to be tried as an adult (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, p. 4). The intention of this new perspective was to lower the number of violent crimes committed by youth.

There is sufficient evidence to support the argument that the adolescent does not have the moral turpitude to make decisions that have long-term implications. These findings are based on psychological studies that point to differences in the way adults and adolescents process information (Grisso, p. 267-269). The capacity of youths to make decisions that will have a long-term impact on their lives is greatly impaired, as compared to adults. Neurological science supports these impairments with numerous MRI studies on the structures of the brain that are necessary in order to make long-term decisions (Bower).

The decision to try a youth as an adult has a lifelong affect on the youth’s ability to exercise certain rights. Once a youth receives a criminal conviction as an adult, they have an artifact that will follow them throughout the rest of their life. Evidence suggests youth convicted and sentenced as adults are more likely to commit future crimes, as compared to those that go through the juvenile system (Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office). Youth tried as adults may lose permanent privileges, such as the right to vote, drive, and in some cases raise a family.

The literature suggests that trying juveniles in adult courts does not take into account the many psychological and neurological differences between juveniles and adults. This research did not reveal study that combined so many elements of the proposed legislature into one place. This research will not only focus on one particular element of the problem, as was found in other research studies, but will provide synthesis to the topic that was not found in other research studies. This will be a necessary step in making the best decision in regards to the legal age at which one can be tried as an adult.


In order to investigate this topic and address all of the issues presented in the research questions, it will be necessary to use both survey and interview techniques. To address the needs of the various stakeholders identified in the introduction of this study, a cross sectional study of these various stakeholders will be used to answer the research question.

For the purposes of this research, the dependent variable to consist of opinions regarding the decision to lower the age at which juveniles can be tried legally as an adult. The independent variable is more difficult to define, but will consist of the factors that influence the decision. These factors will include research into the differences between youth and adults.

The sample population will be drawn from an appropriate sample pool, dependent upon the portion of the study that is being conducted at the time. For instance, for the survey of public opinion, the sample population will be drawn from a pool taken from the general public. For interviews regarding the impact of the legislation on youth within the system, an appropriate pool of staff at youth correctional facilities will be identified. Population sizes will be dependent upon the total number of potential study participants that are identified during the research phase. Public opinion data will be collected by a survey administered to persons at random. Data collected from professionals in the field will be collected via interview techniques. Data collected from the surveys will be analyzed using descriptive statistics, as are appropriate for the data and the research question. Interview data will be coded and categorized for further analysis.

This research study requires different types of information from different sources. Two distinct data collection methods will be used for the study groups. This necessitates the use of different data analysis methods for each particular method as well.

Limitations of Study

This study will attempt to achieve synthesis of the issues involved in the decision to lower the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults. However, it is possible that issues may exist that are beyond the scope of the study, but which could influence the decision. The interview process will include open-ended questions so that professionals in the field can expand on their answers. This will help to identify any pertinent issues that were not addressed in the research study.

Issues regarding the age of culpability are surrounded by highly emotional public opinion and argument. The researcher has formed their own opinion regarding the issues derived from the evidence identified in the literature review. The research will take precautions to make certain that conclusions drawn are not biased by personal opinion. Statistical techniques will be used to help detect any bias that may be inadvertently present.

Works Cited

American Bar Association. Adolescent Brain Development and Legal Culpability, Juvenile Justice Center. January 2004. available online at Accessed March 24, 2008.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The rest of their lives: Life without parole for children offenders in the United States. 2005. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International: United States of America. available online at Accessed March 24, 2008.

Bower, B. “Teen Brains on Trial: The Science of Neural Development Tangles With the Juvenile Death Penalty,” Science News Online, vol. 165, no. 19 (May 8, 2004), available online at: Accessed March 24.

Deerin, M. “The Teen Brain Theory,” Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2001, p. C1

Grisso, T. “What We Know About Youth’s Capacities,” Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice, Thomas Grisso and Robert G. Schwartz, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 267-69

Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office. Re-arrest rates among youth sentenced in adult courts: Evaluation report for juvenile sentencing advocacy project. (2001, October 15). available online at Accessed March 24, 2008.

Taylor-Thompson, K. States of Mind/States of Development. Stanford Law and Policy Review, vol. 14 (2003), p. 155, fn. 107-108.

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