Newsroom image of kids

Child Watch® Column: "Treat Children as Children"

Release Date: January 10, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

“Most parents have long understood that kids don't have the judgment, the maturity, the impulse control and insight necessary to make complicated lifelong decisions. -- Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative

“Don’t lose hope. Understand? With hope you can always go on.” -- Pope Francis after washing young inmates’ feet at the juvenile detention center where he chose to break tradition and celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in one of his first official acts as Pope. The prison’s chaplain, Father Gaetano Greco, said the visit would “make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists, and that they can begin to build their lives again.”

Children are not little adults. Adolescents are not the same as adults. We’ve known this for years. The research showing that their brains are still developing is clear. Although young people act on impulse, they have the ability to positively change and have a productive future.

That’s why it’s outrageous that in the 21st century we still ignore the consequences of automatically funneling children into the adult criminal justice system against so much research on youth development and juvenile justice best practices. It’s bad for public safety and it’s bad for the youths and their families.

One of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s earliest research projects was its 1976 report Children in Adult Jails, documenting the inhumane, ineffective practice of treating children like adult criminals and housing them side by side in the same prisons. Some states had already begun abolishing this harmful practice decades earlier but others were resisting change or dragging their feet. Judge Justine Wise Polier, who was New York State’s first woman judge and presided on New York City’s Family Court for 38 years, was then the director of CDF’s Juvenile Justice Division housed at the Field Foundation. In the foreword to the 1976 report she chided the states that continued to prosecute children in the adult criminal justice system saying, “[i]t has been over three-quarters of a century since states began to legislate that children should be treated as children.”

Nearly forty years later the good news is that there are only two states left that automatically treat all 16- and 17-year-olds like adult criminals. The bad news is that Judge Polier’s home state, New York, is one of them. North Carolina is the other. It’s time for change.

Our society takes adolescent brain development into account in many ways and takes steps to protect children and youths. We don’t allow youths to do certain things because we say they are not mature enough to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. Young people can’t see certain movies without an adult until their 17th birthdays and can’t see others at all until they turn 18. They can’t buy alcohol until their 21st birthdays. In New York young people can’t get a tattoo under age 18. The New York City Council recently voted to raise the legal age of buying tobacco products and electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Yet (there is a double standard) the day a young person turns 16 in New York they are automatically treated as adults in the criminal justice system when charged with a crime. This means a 16-year-old can be arrested and spend a night or more in jail locked up with older adults without his or her parent or guardian ever knowing. A young person can spend five long years incarcerated alongside adults before they are old enough to buy a beer. And even younger children—some as young as 13 years old—can be treated as adults in New York State’s criminal justice system when charged with murder or other serious or violent offenses and assumed to be criminally responsible, and automatically prosecuted as an adult before they’ve entered high school, although they are not detained in adult facilities until 16 or in some cases 21.

Charging children and youths as adults and incarcerating them with adults is the opposite of an effective intervention that helps young people turn their lives around and decreases crime. It makes our communities less safe.

Youths processed in adult criminal justice systems are rearrested and re-incarcerated at higher rates than youths processed in the juvenile justice system. Eighty percent of youths released from adult prison reoffend for more serious crimes. Incarcerating youths in adult jails puts them directly in harm’s way. They suffer increased rates of physical and sexual abuse and high rates of suicide. Youths in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide while incarcerated than those in juvenile facilities. They also are often subject to solitary confinement like adults—16- and 17-year-olds sitting in isolation twenty-three hours a day, for days, weeks, and months at a time. This is cruel and unusual punishment.

Like so many policies in our nation’s criminal justice system, youths of color are disproportionately affected and treated as adults. A Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. The repercussions of treating youths as adults in the criminal justice system affect communities when young people returning home are denied jobs, educational opportunities, and housing as a result of having a criminal record. Families are torn apart by the immigration consequences of criminal records including deportation. The legacy of an adult criminal record on a child, his or her family, and his or her community is long lasting.

We know how to be smart on crime and provide children and youths age appropriate interventions. Some other states are doing this well. New York has also made important advances for children not yet in the adult system. Governor Andrew Cuomo championed juvenile justice reforms with the Close to Home Initiative which acknowledges that youths are best served in their communities where they can earn education credits and stay connected to their families instead of being isolated in facilities many hours away. In other states, advocates for youths in the system have helped reduce the number of children in adult jails and prisons 54 percent since 2000 and 22 percent since 2010 with commitment, hard work, and persistence. But an estimated 250,000 youths are still tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year.

In his State of the State address on January 8, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a Commission that will help devise a plan to raise the age in New York. The State Legislature should join him in implementing this sensible policy. It’s past time to raise the age and for New York and North Carolina to take the next step to treat children and youths as children and youths and protect them from adult criminals. We must never give up on any child until we have tried every means to put them on the path to successful adulthood.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

Sign-up to receive CDF President Marian Wright Edelman's weekly Child Watch Column.

Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change

Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Jake Streeter at: May 15, 2014
It is sad to see the state of our inner city schools. I work in a district where the schools are built like a prison. They are monitored with real police officers. They have to pass through medal detectors. They are talked to like convicts. They even know how many days they get depending on the number offense it is. They are being conditioned for life in prison. The worst part is that the parents are not engaged enough to even care.

Submitted by Teese at: January 28, 2014
This column is truthful and informative. I know of a minor who got into trouble (not murder) and was put into a prison with adult murderers. He was in fights constantly trying to protect himself from them. He was put into confinement constantly for that. When he finally came out, his mind was still in isolation. In his early twenties, he cannot function because he had take his mind to different places to survive isolation, he now has trouble being in the present. His mom is trying to get him help, but it is overwhelming. They were quick to lock him away, but not to help him. We believe he has PTSD from what he has been through.

Submitted by Jalica at: January 21, 2014
Reaching across the isle for adults to adhere to social change, social justice is like getting a goat to stopp eating the rope tied to his own neck. Many do not heed the studies, the references or the strength of disciplines to prove there is a problem. First and foremost, the school educators must change down to the teachers who manage children and are told if they have a problem child write him/her up. We are not all blind just blinded by our abilities that are bias in judments of the children. Working as a teacher, I felt the hardache and the hate that festers within the adult world to change the manners of children to benefit their team members, as well as them. When do we make good our legal standings within the delicate world of news?

Submitted by Anonymous at: January 12, 2014
Ms. Edelman's writings are always very informative and evidence of her sincere efforts to improve the lives of children. I appreciate hearing from her.

Submitted by elle at: January 12, 2014
I agree...children should have the opportunity to overcome mistakes made in their pre-teen or teen years until they reach adulthood. Parents and the legal system should not give up on them so easily.

Submitted by Esi M at: January 12, 2014
This column is a vital tool in our arsenal to combat the insane practices in the U.S. of ignoring all children's vulnerability and potential. May we each pair Dr. Wright Edelman's profound articulate inspiration with our own personal motivation to save 'our' children.

Submitted by Paola at: January 11, 2014
Great article! Human development take time and often, our children because of the way they are raised at home or the lack of conversations, which is the way human development happens don't have all the necessary elements to make sound judgement and make important decisions. We need to take this into account.

Submitted by Connie Valentine at: January 11, 2014
Dear Ms. Edelman, It would be wonderful if you wrote about the crisis in family (divorce) court, that endangers children every day. We are seeing that 70% batterers who want custody manage to get it. They are harming children in every possible way, especially by taking them from their safe mothers. Please look into this egregious problem and address it. Thank you for all you do. Connie Valentine CA Protective Parents Association

Submitted by truth to power at: January 11, 2014
You have to know that this is by design as prisons have been privatized in many states and if these private prisons are to show a profit they must have continual resource of inmates. That resource is children tried in the adult as well as the Juvenile Justice System.Detention centers for children have also been privatized and juvenile court judges are often paid bribes and kickback for referring children to these facilities. Money is the motiv ator in both instances, and let's not get it twisted.Until advocates for children in the justice system develop a media,and bring lasuits against municipalities this travesty will continue. As stated earlier it is all about the "Benjamin's." and mobiliz

Submitted by elaine at: January 11, 2014
I just finished writing an episode on a family experience with my 1st grade daughter regarding the taking of potato chips from a schoolmates lunch & being caught at it by her teacher & its punishing aftermath. I ended the story with a look at adult behavior when "crimes" are committed. I suggested that we understand the behavior & think of compromise etc. rather than jump into punishment. We expect adult behavior on one hand, but do not use adult behavior when we should, but rush to punishment immediately.

Submitted by Marti at: January 11, 2014
Mrs. Eldelman's wisdom and experience regarding the issues of our time and the detrimental impact on our children's well-being is second to none. I am afraid the hearts and minds of many in positions of leadership, power and who have public policy influence are closing. However, I am thankful for every message that comes from Mrs. Eldelman and the work of the CDF. Further, I am hopeful that those of us in position to spread this information within our homes and local communities will do so. Perhaps then the tide will change and the future of our children, communities and nation will be blessed. Thanks for all you do. Please send me information about the CDF Freedom School training opportunities this year. In the meantime, I will search online for more information.

Submitted by Sue at: January 11, 2014
Excellent writing-I could not agree more with this common sense approach to dealing with juvenile crime. The sad thing is that it exists in the first place. Years ago it dawned on me that the prisons are full of people with low self esteem, and if each one of those men(mostly males in prison)had had one mentor, adult that cared for them and could show them the path to self esteem, to give them one thing the child could be good at,then maybe that child would have had a chance at successful adult hood. That is much cheaper than building more prisons! If I was younger and had more energy, I would consider trying to get an organization or community grouops involved more with kids-call it Just One Child, or Make a Difference, One on One.

Submitted by Ela at: January 10, 2014
The system is set up for repeat criminals. With all of the budget cuts, kids who are incarcerated are almost destined to become repeat offenders. Lack of education and the craziness of the jail environment with all its dangers is a dangerous cocktail.

Submitted by momjones at: January 10, 2014
Why adults insist on treating childrn like adults is not a mystery. There are monwters among us who must be kept out of positions of power. Politions who use children to advance their careers are responsibles for this decision. It must finally come to the populace to take back the power and protect the children.

Submitted by Rita at: January 10, 2014
Along with you and the Children's Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center is also working on this very issue.

Submitted by Dot at: January 10, 2014
Please repeat your article for more people to read. Every Black parent,aunt,grandparent, family member and educator should have this knowledge and the fight to protect and save our children. So many lives and futures are being destroyed.

Submitted by DOUN2U at: January 10, 2014

Submitted by Peace at: January 10, 2014
This column was wonderful. We all have to do more to save our beautiful babies.