Child Watch® Column: "Juveniles Don't Belong in Adult Prisons"

Release Date: August 1, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman

Jails and prisons are dangerous places for anybody, but especially for children and teens. Many of these institutions house vicious predators who have been locked up for brutal violent crimes. Yet on any given day, approximately 9,500 juveniles under the age of 18 are locked up in adult penal institutions. Children as young as 15 can be prosecuted as adults in many states without review by a judge or a court hearing.

The Campaign for Youth Justice report, "Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America," released in November 2007, outlines the challenges to keeping children safe in adult jails. It catalogs the numerous jurisdictions throughout the United States where teens are placed in great danger because of the variety of flawed policies and laws governing juvenile incarceration. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, juveniles as young as 14 can be tried in the adult criminal system. Forty states either permit or mandate the jailing of young people in adult facilities before trial.

The report argues that children and teens should not be held to the same standard of accountability for their actions as grown-ups, citing research that shows the developmental differences between adolescents and adults. These findings indicate that the prefrontal cortex, which governs the "executive functions" of reasoning, advanced thinking and impulse control, is one of the last areas of the brain to mature.

In numerous cases, there is no public safety justification for locking up these young people in adult prisons. Juveniles may be held in adult jails for months or even years, although most of them are not charged with a violent crime, and many will not be convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, they languish behind bars with dangerous criminals and are at great risk of being raped and beaten. Many are pushed to attempt suicide.

As in the administration of many laws in this country, Black and Latino children and teens end up in adult facilities in numbers disproportionately higher than their representation in the general population. Nationally, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report, three out of four young people admitted to adult prison in 2002 were either Black or Latino.

At issue is the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA). When originally enacted, it was designed to prevent young people from going to adult jails and prisons and to separate young people from adults while incarcerated.  These protections were called "Sight and Sound Separation"—a young person would be beyond the sight and sound of the adult inmates. Over time, however, these provisions have been eroded and do not apply to young people being tried in the adult criminal system.

Now judges in juvenile courts are often excluded from the decision to prosecute children and teens as adults. In many states, these decisions are made at the discretion of prosecutors, no matter how minor the infraction might be. The JJDPA does not provide a level playing field for Black and Latino youths who are more likely than White youths to end up in adult prisons and jails.

We have an opportunity and responsibility to do better in our country. Placing juveniles in adult jails and prisons is an appalling injustice—and it doesn't work to reduce crime. With the JJDPA set to be reauthorized this year, Congress must amend the Act to ban the placement of children or teens in adult jails or prisons no matter what court hears their case. This is the right and sensible thing to do.


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