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Should the Minors Charged With Starting the Tennessee Wildfire Be Tried as Adults?

Two juveniles have been charged for starting the wildfire that killed 14 people in Tennessee earlier this month. Should they be tried as adults?
The remains of a home smolders after a wildfire November 29th, 2016, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The remains of a home smolders after a wildfire November 29th, 2016, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

On Wednesday, two juveniles were charged with aggravated arson for the wildfires that blazed across eastern Tennessee last week. The fire began November 23rd in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. After November 28th, the wildfire swept with increasing speed down the mountain and into the forest front resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — killing 14, injuring almost 150, and damaging more than 2,400 buildings. As of Thursday, the fires are 91 percent contained.

Authorities have released very little information about the juveniles so far — they are Tennessee residents and are being held at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center. But that hasn’t stopped many of the county’s residents, many of whom lost loved ones or their homes in the “Chimney Tops 2” blaze, from calling for the juveniles to be tried as adults.

“Age shouldn’t matter on something like this,” Katarina Mills, a Sevier County resident told the Washington Post. “There were so many lives lost in this fire, due to this fire, and due to them being inconsiderate.

In other words, it’s the severity of the damage — to property and human lives — that should allow the juveniles to be tried as adults. But that sentiment belies the reasoning for the existence of a separate juvenile justice system, namely everything we’ve come to understand about adolescent brain development, culpability, and the potential for change.

“It is important for judges to consider the irreparable harm that is often caused to young people who are transferred to adult court.”

The idea that juveniles might not be as legallyresponsible for their criminal actions as adults has deep roots in America. In the 18th century, children younger than seven were incapable of committing a crime in the eyes of the law, as they were thought to be too young to understand the consequences of their actions. The first official juvenile court was established in 1899. Early juvenile courts weren’t just about punishment, but rehabilitation — ensuring that America’s youth could avoid a life of crime. The courts took on a parental role, with the power not only to punish juveniles, but the responsibility to protect them.

“The child who must be brought into court should, of course, be made to know that he is face-to-face with the power of the state, but he should, at the same time, and more emphatically, be made to feel that he is the object of its care and solicitude,” Judge Julian Mack, one of the first juvenile court judges in Illinois, said in 1910.

Originally, the juvenile court process was fairly casual, sometimes involving nothing more than a conversation between a judge and the minor. Over time, juvenile courts became more formal and less flexible. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that kids in the juvenile justice system were guaranteed the same rights as those in criminal courts, like the right to an attorney, and, later on, the requirement that there be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the juvenile defendant’s guilt.

Just about every state allows juvenile courts to waive their jurisdiction over certain cases and transfer them to criminal courts as well. Throughout the 20th century, the number of minors being tried as adults increased alongside rising crime rates.

So how do juvenile courts decide whether or not to waive their jurisdiction to criminal courts? In Tennessee, the offenders must be at least 16 years old (unless the charge is for murder, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, or an attempt to commit any of these offenses). Beyond that, the court considers delinquency records, previous attempts at rehabilitation, whether the offense harmed people or property, whether it was premeditated, and the juveniles’ chance at rehabilitation given the state’s resources and services. In light of all that, the juvenile court must find three main factors to be true:

  • The child committed the delinquent act as alleged.
  • The child is not committable to an institution for the developmentally disabled or mentally ill.
  • The interests of the community require that the child be put under legal restraint or discipline.

But the harm that juvenile offenders have caused with their actions is just one side of the coin, according to Beth Caldwell, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. “It is also important for judges to consider the irreparable harm that is often caused to young people who are transferred to adult court, and who are later housed in adult prisons,” she says. “Juveniles are more vulnerable to violent attacks, sexual assault, and suicide when they are sentenced, and then incarcerated, as adults.”

Beyond the potential trauma of incarceration, research shows that kids who receive harsher, adult penalties are actually more likely to re-offend than their peers who go through the juvenile justice system. And while sentencing juveniles as adults for serious and violent crimes — murder, rape, and assault, for example — does not actually work as a deterrent, it certainly creates a financial strain: On average, it costs almost $29,000 a year to keep adults incarcerated in prisons in the United States.

And it’s not as if juvenile courts aren’t equipped to handle cases when minors commit serious crimes. In California, offenders can remain under the supervision of juvenile courts until they are 25 years old, Caldwell notes. “This should give us as a society enough time to rehabilitate people — even people who have caused a lot of harm,” she says.

Indeed, urged by neuroscience studies that show an imbalance in the adolescent brain between the development of reward-seeking systems and cognitive control ones, the legal system is coming around to the idea that minors might not be as criminally responsible for their delinquent actions as adults.

“In particular, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, and for weighing the long-term consequences of one’s actions, is not yet fully formed in one’s teenage years,” Caldwell says. “Thus, no matter how horrible one’s actions are during adolescence, it is not fair to hold juveniles to the same standards as adults because, as the Supreme Court has said in opinions limiting Life Without Parole for juvenile offenders, they are not as ‘blameworthy’ as adults.”

Authorities haven’t released enough information yet about the two charged for starting the Tennessee fire to speculate about what the court might do at this point. But, given what we know about the fundamental differences between juveniles and adults, and the effectiveness of funneling minors into the adult corrections system, prioritizing retribution over rehabilitation may not be justice after all.