Culpability within Juvenile Justice

Culpability, according to US Legal (2012), is an expression of the blameworthiness or responsibility of an accused person for a criminal act and often involves an understanding by the person that their actions were wrong.  Standards for culpability vary across jurisdictions and individual criminal offenses within each jurisdiction.  For example, the laws of the State of Texas generally require that a person engages in prohibited conduct with intent, knowledge, or recklessness to be culpable from a criminal offense though specific offenses may allow for a more narrowed or broader range of culpable mental states (Section 6.02, Texas Penal Code).  One of the more debated and researched aspects of culpability involve criminal offenders who are juveniles.

The Macarthur Foundation Research Network (2012a) argues that, due to a well-established range of culpability within criminal justice, the developmental immaturity of a young juvenile offender should mitigate and reduce culpability and allow for relative levels of punishments as compared to what would be received by adult offenders.    The network is currently conducting research on whether that developmental immaturity should be considered on an individual, case by case basis or through more generalized interpretation of juvenile delinquency as a whole.  Additional research is being conducted by the Macarthur Foundation Research Network (2012b) regarding a theory that stereotyping of racial minorities impact juvenile justice cases beginning with the efforts of law enforcement all the way through the findings of juvenile court judges and juries.

Additional research and the U.S. Supreme Court have historically agreed with the position of the Macarthur Foundation Research Network on juvenile culpability.  In 1966, the United State Supreme Court ruled in Kent v. U.S. that a magistrate must hold a hearing before moving venue for a criminal cause from juvenile or family courts to adult criminal courts.  A year later, the court ruled in In re Gault that juvenile offenders have and retain certain constitutional rights that are commonly afforded to adult criminal defendants, regardless of the court in which the juvenile’s case is being heard (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).  Decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case of Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551 (2005), to revisit whether or not juvenile offenders could be given the death penalty.  Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Scott (2003), argued in research that would be cited by the Roper court that:

“We believed that the uniqueness of immaturity as a mitigating condition argues for the adoption of, or renewed commitment to, a categorical approach, under which most youths are dealt with in a separate justice system, in which rehabilitation is a central aim, and none are eligible for the ultimate punishment of death.  Other mitigators – emotional disturbance and coercive external circumstances, for example – affect criminal choices with endless variety and have idiosyncratic effects on behavior; thus, individualized consideration of mitigation is appropriate where these phenomena are involved.” (p. 1016)

Given ongoing research by the Macarthur Foundation Research Network (2012b) and potentially others, it is clear that the scholastic debate over understanding of criminal culpability for juvenile offenders is far from complete.  Recent research has argued that juveniles are notably deficient in both understanding their rights and adjudicative competency, providing significant opportunity for the expertise of forensic psychologists in the juvenile court systems (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).  It is the opinion of this researcher that continued research in this area should run parallel to frequent, if not mandatory, forensic psychological evaluations regarding juvenile offenders who face determinate or indeterminate sentences involving incarceration at either juvenile or adult correctional facilities.


Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2008). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Macarthur Foundation Research Network.  (n.d.).  Bringing Research to Policy and Practice in Juvenile Justice.  Retrieved on April 13, 2012, at:

Macarthur Foundation Research Network.  (n.d.).  Research: Perceptions of Youth Culpability.  Retrieved on April 15, 2012, at:

Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551 (2005).

Steinberg, L. & Scott, E.  (2003).  Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence.  American Psychologist, Vol. 58(12).  US: American Psychological Association.

Texas Penal Code.  (n.d.).  Retrieved on April 14, 2012, from

US Legal.  (n.d.).  Culpable Law & Legal Definition.  Retrieved on April 14, 2012, from

© 2012 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.

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About the author

Jeremy Liebbe holds a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Police Science, and is currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. He has over a decade of law enforcement investigative experience as a detective sergeant with experience including narcotics, crimes against children, and homicide investigations. As a result of his expertise in complex criminal investigations and forensic mental health Jeremy has earned numerous commendations, lectured throughout Texas and in several other states, authored and co-authored over a half dozen published papers, and has provided expert testimony in over a dozen felony trials.