Juvenile Justice System

Relevant Cases: Brian Banks


The criminal justice system in the United States is used to not only to punish adults but also to punish those younger than 18 years of age. The presumption is that those younger than 18 are less responsible for their criminal acts because of their lack of maturity. The goal for the juvenile justice system focuses more on rehabilitation rather than punishment for criminal acts. Juvenile detention facilities focus on providing education, training, treatment, and counseling programs in order to rehabilitate the young person to not return to a criminal lifestyle.

However, many times those younger than 18 are deemed mature enough and the crimes were serious or violent enough that the state chooses to try them as adults. In these cases, the offender will either be sent to the Youth Authority until his or her 18th birthday or the state may even choose to send them directly to an adult prison facility.

Interestingly, juvenile offenses can still be used as a strike for the purposes of the Three Strikes law in California. Nor do juvenile offenders have the right to a jury trial, a right only adult offenders possess.

Brian Banks, a recent successful exoneration of the California Innocence Project, was accused of rape and kidnapping by a fellow classmate when he was 16 years old. He was forced to go through mental competency examinations performed by state officials. After these examinations, he was deemed fit to be tried as an adult. On the day of his jury trial, the prosecutor offered a plea bargain where in exchange for his guilty plea, they would leave sentencing to the court and he would receive a maximum sentence of 6 years. If he went to jury trial, he faced a maximum penalty of 41 years to life in prison. As a 16 year old, Banks was forced to make this decision of whether to accept the plea offer or go to jury trial where he could possibly be acquitted or he could spend the majority of his adult life in prison. Banks was given 10 minutes to make this decision and was not given the opportunity to speak to his mother, despite his repeated requests to do so. In order to avoid the risk of trial, Banks accepted the plea. He received a sentence of six years in prison. Banks consistently maintained his innocence of the crimes. After his release, the victim finally admitted, on video, she lied about the rape and conceded she was never raped or kidnapped by Banks. Banks was vindicated on May 24, 2012 when the court exonerated him of all charges and vacated his wrongful conviction.

For more information on the juvenile justice system, please visit the U.S. Department of Justice’s website at www.ojjdp.gov.