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Human Rights Day 2013: Making U.S. Children Behind Bars a Priority

Posted in 2013, Across the Country Monday, 09 December 2013

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By Liz Ryan

Several times a year, our organization meets with delegations of juvenile justice experts from around the world.  We always start the conversation with a show of hands.  How many of your countries prosecute children in adult criminal court? How many of your countries put children in adult jails and adult prisons? How many of your countries sentence children to decades behind bars or life in prison without the possibility of parole? My hand is always the only one raised in response to these questions.

As we share our orange wristband bearing the message, "Join the Movement for Youth Justice" with these experts, we tell them about the 100,000 children who languish in adult jails and prisons and the 250,000 children prosecuted in adult criminal court every year.  We share the astronomical statistics about the $6 billion the U.S. spends to incarcerate children in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems every year and the grim facts on the inhumane conditions of confinement that children are exposed to in the justice system.

I always see the same look of shock on their faces. They tell us that they had not heard any of this from their U.S. State Department hosts on their trip to date. "I'm not surprised," I tell them.  Their State Department Hosts reflect a common thread in American society: a view that the U.S. is the beacon of human rights, and other countries must measure up to the U.S.  The U.S. does not abuse human rights, especially not when it comes to children.  Rather, the U.S. is the human rights standard bearer and will withhold foreign aid when other countries violate human rights.

In reality, the U.S. is number one when it comes to children in the justice system, but not because we have the highest standards in the world.  The U.S. is the world's leader in the incarceration of children.  We stand out above the rest as the only country in the world that routinely prosecutes children in adult criminal court and places children in adult jails and prisons, where they are the most at-risk of violence, sexual assault, and suicide.  For the youth who are convicted in adult criminal court, the consequences are serious, negative, life-long, and in some cases, deadly.

On this Human Rights Day 2013, we must remember the children in the United States who languish behind bars in juvenile detention centers, juvenile prisons, adult jails and adult prisons.

U.S. policy and state laws do not adequately protect these children from harm or ensure rehabilitative programs or regular access to their families.  And, the United States does not adhere to international human rights conventions - such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - that would protect the human rights of the children in the justice system.

The good news is that the American public strongly rejects the incarceration of children. According to the latest polls, they favor their rehabilitation and treatment.  Americans overwhelmingly oppose the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons, and strongly favor individualized determinations on a case-by-case basis by juvenile court judges in the juvenile justice system rather than automatic prosecution in adult criminal court.

It is past time to recognize that we are not a world leader when it comes to the human rights of children in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  We lag behind the rest of the world.  Rather than always focusing on taking other countries to task for their human rights abuses, U.S. officials and state policymakers must focus on addressing the human rights of children in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems here at home.