Anthony Laster was a 15-year-old eighth-grader with an IQ of 58 who was described by relatives as having the mind of a 5-year-old. One day in 1998, shortly after his mother died, Anthony was hungry, so he reached into the pocket of another student in his Florida middle school and took $2 in lunch money. The boy's family reported the crime to the authorities, and the local prosecutor, Barry Kirscher, decided to prosecute Anthony as an adult. It was Anthony's ﬁrst arrest. He spent the next seven weeks -- including his ﬁrst Christmas since his mother died -- in an adult jail waiting for his court date.
Anthony's story, reported by 60 Minutes II, is, sadly, familiar. Every day, judges and prosecutors make complex decisions about whether young offenders should be tried as juveniles or adults. Sometimes the choice is made in a retail process repeated daily in juvenile courts or prosecutors' offices; at other times, the choice is made, wholesale, by legislative ﬁat in a process far removed from the juvenile courts.
These choices reﬂect deeply held assumptions about the nature of teen crime, how society should react to it, and adolescence itself. The two court systems reﬂect sharply contrasting ideas about adolescents who break the law -- their immaturity and culpability, whether they can be treated or rehabilitated, the security threats they pose, and the punishment they deserve. Sending a youth to adult criminal court usually is irreversible, and it often exposes young lawbreakers to harsh and sometimes toxic forms of punishment, not to mention more unsavory peer inﬂuences that in many cases have the perverse effect of increasing criminal activity.
In the original juvenile-court reform movement, as historian David Tanenhaus has noted, there was a presumption of “childhood”; only the most incorrigible youths were transferred to the adult criminal court, and the decision was made by the judge. Had Anthony's case arisen during the ﬁrst three-quarters of the 20th...