Yesterday, in the Minnesota House of Representatives, a bill called “Emily’s Law” began moving through the chamber. Sponsored by Republican Representative Torrey Westrom, and supported by Emily’s parents, the bill seeks to lower the age in which a juvenile could be tried as an adult in Minnesota from fourteen to ten. The bill would allow a judge to certify children as young as ten as adults if they are accused of murder, manslaughter, assault, aggravated robbery or sexual misconduct. Under current Minnesota law, minors between the ages of fourteen and seventeen can be certified as adults. Previous efforts to change the legal age have failed.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s most recent data, juveniles under the age of fifteen committed 27% of violent juvenile crimes in 2007-2008. Murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault are classified as violent crimes in their index.
Thirteen states already allow violent juvenile offenders under the age of fourteen to be certified as adults, including Kansas and Vermont, which allow juveniles as young as ten to be tried as adults. Colorado allows ten-year-olds to be certified as adults only if they are charged with murder.
In March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles, ruling that state laws authorizing capital punishment for those under the age of eighteen who commit murder violated the Eighth Amendment’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional. Juveniles who commit violent crimes can now be sentenced to a maximum of life in prison. The ruling struck down laws in twenty-one states that had allowed the death penalty for juvenile offenders and took seventy-two prisoners off death row.
Representatives from Minnesota county attorneys, the public defender’s office, and corrections officials, all testified against the bill. They contend that very few juveniles younger than fourteen commit murder or other “unspeakable acts,” and no change in the law is necessary. Others argued that ten-year-olds do not have the capacity to “think and function as adults.” Representatives from the ACLU testified that the law would “impact racial disparities.”
Emily’s parents, Lynn and Travis Johnson, have testified in support of the legislation for five consecutive years. They believe the current system “has failed miserably,” and ask why fourteen is the “magical age.”
Obviously, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize Emily’s parents for supporting the age change, but what if you were Emily’s parents? What would you do? Should ten-year-olds be tried as adults in cases of murder and other extremely violent crimes? If not, at what age should a juvenile be certified as an adult?
The jury is out.