This week, the Brazilian Senate will consider a constitutional amendment that would allow prosecutors to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. In a country with high levels of violence such as Brazil, it’s tempting to think that harsher treatment will increase public security, but the evidence from other countries shows just the opposite.
The United States has most likely made the greatest use of measures like this proposal, and the results have been rigorously researched. The studies make for sobering reading.
Adolescents who are sent to the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested than those in the juvenile system, a comprehensive review by the Centers for Disease Control revealed.
If they’re housed in adult jails and prisons, they’re at increased risk of physical abuse, including sexual assault. Children under 18 are, thankfully, a minuscule proportion of inmates in US adult facilities. But one in five victims of substantiated incidents of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence was under 18, a 2008 study found.
Adolescents in the adult criminal system also face disruptions in social development, identity formation, learning, the development of key skills, and healthy transition to adulthood, other studies have shown. Because most of them will eventually return to their communities, these are profoundly negative consequences for society.
In recognizing these realities, US states have increasingly moved away from trying children as adults. In the last five years, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and South Carolina have all raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds.
It hasn’t negatively affected public safety. On the contrary, youth crime fell in Connecticut and Illinois, the first of these states to end trials of 17-year-olds as adults.
A review by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission concluded that the juvenile justice system – which emphasizes rehabilitation – is the best system even for 17-year-olds accused of the most serious crimes.
These findings aren’t surprising, given what we now know about adolescent brain development. New research has shown that impulsivity, risk-taking, susceptibility to peer pressure, and a focus on immediate rewards with little regard for future consequences are hallmarks of adolescence.
This means the prospect of being charged as an adult has little, if any, deterrent effect. It also means that adolescents are particularly amenable to change.
Instead of replicating failed policies that harm children and society, Brazil’s lawmakers should invest in and improve Brazil’s current juvenile justice system