Too many children are being criminalized at increasingly younger ages and subjected to the juvenile justice system and/or the adult criminal justice system. This is particularly true for children who are poor; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children facing neglect, abuse, and/or violence; children in foster care; and children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). These children are disproportionately pushed out of schools and pulled into unjust systems through arrests and incarceration, which exacerbates harm and increases the risk of abuse. More than 1 million children were arrested in the United States in 2014 and approximately 856,000 children were arrested in 2016 according to preliminary estimates. Although youth arrests and incarceration have been decreasing overall, 48,043 children were incarcerated on an average night in 2015 and the proportion of justice-involved girls has been increasing. Moreover, racial disproportionality remains and it gets worse as children of color go deeper in the system—from the point of arrest to post-adjudication placement.
All children deserve to grow up at home in safe, stable families, receive a quality education in safe, supportive schools, and participate in peaceful, thriving communities. Every child should be able to have a childhood that provides the time and space for learning, mistakes, and restorative correction by caring adults with knowledge of adolescent brain development and a child’s capacity to change based on neuroscience. To the extent that children are deemed to have committed a punishable offense per the juvenile justice system or a crime per the adult criminal justice system, they are entitled to adequate legal representation and a response that is age-appropriate, developmentally-appropriate, culturally-responsive, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed in the least-restrictive, most-safe setting in order to facilitate rehabilitation, promote healing, ensure positive youth development, and reduce recidivism.
We work to ensure more humane and rehabilitative prevention and treatment for all children who come in contact with the juvenile justice system, especially children of color who historically have been disproportionately impacted. To stop the criminalization of children and ensure justice for all youth, we must:
- Ensure Federal Resources for Youth Justice Reform: It is imperative to reauthorize, update, and fully fund the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Reauthorization and updates are long overdue. First passed in 1974, the JJDPA provides federal standards for care and custody to protect children who come in contact with the juvenile justice system and funding for states to improve their juvenile justice systems and delinquency prevention programs. States must uphold four core protections for children including: the deinstitutionalization of status offenders, removal from adult jails, separation from adults by sight and sound, and address disproportionate minority contact. The JJDPA has been awaiting reauthorization since 2007.
- Close Youth Prisons and Invest in Restorative, Community-Based Solutions: Youth prisons are often harmful, large, outdated, punitive places in which children are locked in secure facilities without the compassion, services and support needed to rehabilitate and not recidivate. Elected officials must protect children and increase public safety by closing youth prisons and investing in restorative, community-based solutions close to home.
- End Solitary Confinement of Children: Solitary confinement refers to the involuntary placement of isolating a child in a cell, room, or other spot for any reason other than as a temporary response to the threat of immediate physical harm. Facilities refer to this practice in various ways, including isolation, room confinement seclusion, or segregation. Solitary confinement is detrimental to the health and well-being of children. It exacerbates issues rather than resolving them, and it must end.