The injustices presented by youth being treated as adults in the criminal justice system are plentiful and continually positions the United States as an outlier in preserving the human rights of children. Several of the most egregious injustices include:
- Treating children as though they are mini adults: Research has proven that childrens’ brains handle decision-making, impulsivity, and causal relationships differently from adults. Furthermore, they show great capacity to change. Not taking these differences into account is a gross injustice to our children.
- Failing to provide children with appropriate protections at their arrest and during trial. Children who are charged as adults are not afforded the protections of having their parents or guardians present during police interrogation. Research has demonstrated that youth are much more likely to sign confessions, admit guilt, and feed law enforcement the answers that “they want” in order to go home. Despite having the greatest influence and support for their children, parents are often times left out of the equation which rehabilitation is considered.
- Treating children differently based on their race and ethnicity. Children of color are much more likely to be prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults than their white counterparts. These disparities are gross and unacceptable (African American youth are 9 times more likely to be sentenced to adult prison than white children for the same crimes; latino youth are 4 times more likely; and Tribal youth are nearly twice as likely).
- Incarcerating children in adult facilities. Children charged and sentenced as adults are housed in adult facilities. They have very little access to developmentally appropriate education, mental health, substance abuse, or vocational services. Rather, children are often held in solitary confinement to “protect” them from the adult population, isolating them 20-22 hours/day.
- Punishing children the rest of their lives for poor decisions made in their childhood. We know that a critical aspect of adolescence is learning to make good decisions; and having the opportunity to right the wrongs we make. Children who are sentenced as adults carry their conviction the rest of their lives.
For the past decade, the Campaign for Youth Justice has partnered with states, advocates, and impacted youth and families to challenge these practices. We have seen the impact that unified voices can have in challenging injustices. In fact, in the past ten years, 30 states have changed nearly 50 laws making it more difficult to prosecute, sentence and incarcerate children in the adult criminal justice system.
As we enter the 2016 legislative session, we encourage you to get involved in the local, state or federal campaigns that challenge this practice. Legislation has already been introduced in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and South Carolina. We expect several other states to introduce legislation in upcoming weeks to decrease the number of youth entering the adult criminal justice system. We can only change these laws if communities are willing to stand for justice, and we need your help.
There are many ways to take a stand against injustice:
- Sign on to your local campaign’s listserve to stay abreast of progress;
- Call or tweet policymakers to show your support for reform;
- Leverage your networks to learn more about this issue—host a discussion in your home, or community center, or house of faith to share with others the injustices being harbored against our youth;
- Raise your voice in support—offer to write op eds or letters to the editor to call on policymakers to do what is right for children.