How can it be that lots of children – about 10,000 on any given day, around 250,000 per year – are stuck in adult jails and prisons? Right there with the grown up convicts. If that doesn’t outrage you, it should. Maybe you know a young teenager (your own kid? a nephew? a neighbor?). Imagine that child incarcerated in an adult world, governed by adult rules, and surrounded by full grown, adult, convicted criminals. The useful things that might help that child get his or her life back on track – school, therapy, treatment, age appropriate positive role models – aren’t available. Not only that, but as children amongst adult offenders, they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than they would be in juvenile facilities. Their risk of suicide skyrockets: 75% of all deaths of juveniles in adult jails are due to suicide. We must stop punishing children through the adult criminal justice system.
No juveniles belong in adult prisons, but what is especially appalling is what a huge factor race plays in who gets sent there – when juvenile offenders are black or Latino, the odds are really against them. Black children comprise 62% of the juveniles prosecuted in the adult criminal system, and they are nine times more likely than white juveniles to receive an adult prison sentence. Out of 257 children prosecuted as adults in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, only one was white. Latino youth are 43% more likely than white children to be tried as adults and 40% more likely to be admitted to adult prison.
What is also particularly stunning is just how young kids can be and still be tried as an adult. In Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin, 10-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults in adult court; in Michigan, Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Ohio, the minimum age is 12; and in fourteen states, there is no minimum age for adult criminal court jurisdiction. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. And, here’s an alarming fact: as often than not, the juveniles incarcerated in the adult world are in jail awaiting trial, so they have not yet even been convicted of crime.
What atrocities happen to these children, incarcerated as adults in adult prisons and jails? There’s no good option: juveniles housed with adults in the general population are at high risk of sexual assault and exposed to adult drugs, gangs, and violence; but the juveniles who are instead isolated in solitary confinement suffer severe mental health damage from that barbaric practice. And here’s the real kicker: there is absolutely no discernible benefit to society from subjecting juveniles to the adult criminal justice system. None. Kids incarcerated in adult prisons have a much higher rate of re-offending when they get out than juveniles who go through the juvenile justice system. This is not surprising given the gangs, drugs, and violence they face in adult prison.
To be clear, this missive is not intended to advocate for the horrors of the juvenile justice system, a broken and bankrupt system warranting a post of its own. But it is clear that the adult criminal justice system will never address the needs and rehabilitative potential of children who commit crimes, and it is time to seek out a system that provides whatever punishment is required in a developmentally appropriate way. The goals of the criminal justice system – accountability, rehabilitation, deterrence, and protecting public safety – can all be best served by keeping juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system. To sign a petition from social action group CREDO Action to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, demanding that the Department of Justice launch an investigation into the practice of trying and jailing children as adults click here.
For more on the subject, see the interesting video below…