One of the top news stories today is that of Tristan Kurilla, a fifth-grader from Pennsylvania, who is being charged with criminal homicide after beating a woman to death.

Kurilla is currently being tried as an adult, but can petition to be tried as a juvenile. The philosophic distinction between the categories ostensibly being that juveniles are not expected to "recognize the difference between right and wrong." Interestingly, the nomenclature of the categories describes a distinction of age, although the criterion by which we establish the categories refers to a facet of one's intelligence.

Is age really an adequate predictor of one's capacity to understand these ethical conceptions? Is it the only predictor? If no to either, what would be preferable?

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    Isn't there a politics or current events forum? In any event isn't this a question of law and not of philosophy? By the way the particulars of this case are quite shocking. It's an outlier, not something on which you'd want to build a general theory of jurisprudence. – user4894 Oct 17 '14 at 17:17
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    This question appears to be off-topic because a good answer would come from empirical studies in psychology, not from philosophy. – Rex Kerr Oct 17 '14 at 18:25
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    There is a point to considering why, ethically, we handle juvenile offenders differently. – user9166 Oct 17 '14 at 20:25
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    There's something interesting behind this question, but as it is now this question is possibly off-topic and definitely broad. To answer "Is [age] the only predictor?" would take a while to respond to. – James Kingsbery Oct 17 '14 at 20:46
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    I agree with @jobermark. This question is on-topic. – DBK Oct 18 '14 at 18:02

We regularly find the mentally disabled innocent on the basis of limited understanding. So the distinction is already part of the adult justice system. I think the distinction between the two separate sentencing systems is really not about the defendant's developmental level but rather how much we expect the person to develop beyond their current moral status.

An adult might be found innocent based on mental age, but would still not be tried as a juvenile on that basis, because juvenile facilities and procedures are meant to accommodate the child's ongoing development and to really educate, in the sense of 'shaping personality' rather than just to rehabilitate. The adult is not expected to be subject to the same kind of shaping.

Of course, to some degree this is provably incorrect, people do continue to develop, and prisoners can find something in the experience that is less of a rehabilitation of their viewpoint and more of a new dimension of their personality. (Tim Robbins' drama projects, for instance, seem to work in this way -- by giving the participants a different kind of theory of mind and empathy than they developed the first time around through having them play roles for extended periods.) But it is not the expected response of an adult to punishment.

To try a child as an adult, you basically have to make the case they will not grow out of their criminal mindset. This can be because the crime indicates psychopathology that does not tend to be treatable, or because the child has so little time left before growth is complete that they are unlikely to come that far by then. So folks that usually get charged as adults are at least 16.

My guess is that this case must fall in the first category, or no one would dare charge someone so young as an adult. Something in the child's method must indicate he is depraved, and not just impulsive.


A rose by any other name is still a rose. A child is still a child. The human mind goes through a greatest physical and mental development during the teen years.

To put the child on trial as an adult is for society to throw away all moral responsibility in trying to turn the child's life around. A 10 year old child has no mental reckoning as to what the lifetime consequences of his actions are.

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