Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

Should juvenile prior crimes count against adult offenders? What does the Public Think?

In a previous Robina blog post "Public Attitudes Regarding Look-Back Limits: Findings from New Robina Institute Research" I summarised findings from a Robina public opinion survey which explored community attitudes to criminal history enhancements at sentencing. The survey found that the US public was more forgiving than many guidelines: although most guidelines count all prior crimes indefinitely, the public favoured the use of ‘look-back’ limits – so that only the more recent prior crimes would result in a sentencing enhancement. The survey also found that the public discounted earlier priors within a look-back window: older priors resulted in the public assigning less additional punishment than more recent priors. Again, this is discrepant with many US guidelines which generally assign the same weight to prior crimes whether they occurred one year ago or nine years earlier.

In this blog entry I summarise public reaction to a related question: should an adult offender receive a harsher sentence for crimes committed when he was a juvenile, possibly decades earlier? Most US guidelines do count all prior juvenile crimes, although some assign less weight to juvenile priors than adult priors. What does the public think? 

With the exception of North Carolina, every guidelines jurisdiction includes prior juvenile adjudications in their criminal history scores. Seven jurisdictions treat prior juvenile adjudications the same as adult convictions, while the others assign less weight to juvenile convictions (see Mitchell, 2015). There are powerful reasons to discount or disregard some or most juvenile convictions once the individual becomes an adult. First, on risk-related grounds the juvenile prior is likely to be less probative of re-offending, simply through the passage of time. Second, from a retributive perspective, juveniles are universally deemed to be less culpable than adult offenders convicted of crimes of comparable seriousness. Indeed, the Supreme Court has found that Third, the transition to adulthood should offer individuals an opportunity to shed their juvenile criminal transgressions, unless these are clearly predictive of further offending.

The Survey

The survey posed the following general policy question on juvenile priors: 

Imagine your state is considering passing a new law related to criminal sentencing. Under the new law, judges would not be allowed to count an offender's prior criminal convictions against him if the convictions were committed while the offender was a juvenile. Which of the following would best describe your position on such a proposal?

  • I would support the proposal that offenses committed as a juvenile should no longer count against an offender.
  • I would not support the proposal; I believe judges should be allowed to increase punishment for offenders who committed crimes as juveniles.

In response, 71% were in favor of such a policy restricting the use of sentencing enhancements for prior offenses committed while a juvenile, and 29% against.

Next, all respondents were given the same basic facts about the case and then randomly assigned to receive different details about the offender’s prior record. All four groups read that the defendant had been convicted of a “minor robbery” when he was a seventeen. The groups then received different information about how long ago the robbery occurred (and Jay’s current age). The juvenile prior was described as occurring 23, 18, 13, or 8 years ago. Most jurisdictions would count this prior conviction at adult sentencing hearings, although some would assign less weight than if it had been an adult prior crime (see Mitchell, 2015).

Jay Williams has just been convicted of tax evasion. When filing his tax return he failed to report $7,000 of extra income he had earned as a home renovator. The usual sentence for this crime is around 12 months in prison. At sentencing, his lawyer informed the court that although Williams has one prior conviction, it occurred [23/ 18/13/8] years ago. When Williams was 17 years old and finishing high school he was convicted of a minor robbery. He was sentenced to a term of juvenile probation that he completed successfully. Since then, and until now, he has led a law-abiding life. Should this previous juvenile conviction from [23/18/13/8] years ago affect the sentence that should be imposed now for this crime?

  • No, the offense should not be considered for sentencing the current tax evasion offense because it was committed years ago when he was a minor.
  • Yes, because of the prior juvenile offense, the current sentence should be increased by ____ months.

The object of the design was to test whether the public would view a juvenile prior as less relevant the longer ago it occurred. In the event, almost all respondents (between 93% and 97% in all conditions) opposed counting the prior conviction. An eight-year-old prior juvenile crime would be included in an offender’s criminal history score in most guideline schemes (Mitchell, 2015, Table 5.1).

Finally, to further explore public reaction to juvenile priors, respondents were provided with a list of potential sentencing factors and asked whether, based on each given factor, a sentence should be much higher, moderately higher, slightly higher, unchanged, slightly lower, moderately lower, or much lower. Factors like financial stress, being employed, and having young children were associated with lower sentences. Consistent with the case study featuring Jay Williams, having a prior juvenile offense did not merit a higher level of punishment in the eyes of the public.

Conclusion

For certain offenses at least, the public support disregarding prior crimes when they were committed when the offender, now an adult, was a juvenile. Although the most recent juvenile prior included in the scenario was eight years old, most jurisdictions would still count this against the offender. As with the issue of the weight of older priors (see previous blog entry), it would appear that here too, many guidelines are harsher than the public: the guidelines count some juvenile priors while the public would ignore these juvenile transgressions. 

Further information: a copy of the survey instrument and a paper reporting the results in more detail can be obtained by contacting the Robina Institute at robina@umn.edu.

References

Mitchell, K. (2015). Prior Juvenile Adjudications. In: R.S. Frase, J.V. Roberts, R. Hester, & K. Mitchell, Criminal History Enhancements Sourcebook. Minneapolis, MN: Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, University of Minnesota.

Disclaimer: In the case of all blog posts, podcasts, or video blogs, the opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Law School, or the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.​

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