I’ve been inside a number of prisons – as a reporter, fortunately, not as an inmate. One thing I know for certain is that these are not places where children should be confined. Yet more than 10,000 juveniles in the US are currently serving sentences in adult prisons.
More than half the states in this country allow prosecution of children as young as 12 in adult courts, and this happens to thousands of juveniles every year. If they are found guilty they can be sentenced as if they were adults. Minors typically receive longer sentences in adult court than they would if convicted of the same crimes in juvenile court. In Virginia, minors can be executed.
Does this make any sense?
A Department of Justice report issued last year cited several large-scale studies that show “a strong consistency” in their findings that prosecution of minors in adult court “substantially increases recidivism.” As the DOJ report points out, juveniles in adult prison learn criminal attitudes and behavior from the offenders they’re incarcerated with. They feel stigmatized by being labeled forever as convicted felons, they nurse a sense of injustice and a resentment toward society, and they suffer from a lack of the rehabilitation and family support they might have received in juvenile facilities.
According to the DOJ, “Juveniles in adult prison reported that much of their time was spent learning criminal behavior from the inmates and proving how tough they were. They also were much more fearful of being victimized than they had been when incarcerated in juvenile facilities, and more than 30 percent had been assaulted or had witnessed assaults by prison staff.” They are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and twice as likely to be attacked with a weapon by inmates or beaten by staff. Throw a kid into adult prison and he’ll probably come out as an adult criminal with a vastly reduced chance of getting his life on course and becoming a productive member of society.
The move toward trying children as adults gained momentum in the last 20 years, as drug use spread through all levels of society and all age groups except the very young and the very old, as kids were recruited (or forced) into criminal gangs, and guns became more accessible. Statistics show that crimes by children have become more common. Our society’s reaction has been to discard many of those young lives and make it increasingly difficult for youthful offenders to look forward to productive futures. Every time we hear the news of a child murdering someone – frequently a parent or another child – plenty of people snarl, “Lock up the little bastard and throw away the key.”
Yes, kids can commit premeditated murder. Yes, kids can rob and viciously assault innocent people. Yes, kids can deal drugs, commit burglary, steal from homes and businesses. The children who do such things have to be dealt with. But putting children in adult prison is, to my mind, cruel and unusual punishment. If kids who break the law are to have any hope of turning their lives around, we need to focus less on harsh punishment and find an effective way to rehabilitate them.
Hard to do, you might say. It’s so much easier to believe our states are doing a good job of handling juvenile offenders. Even if the Department of Justice doesn’t think so. Even if the American Bar Association doesn’t think so.
But consider this:
Thousands of kids in adult prison, learning how to be adult criminals. Thousands of bitter, resentful kids who – most of them, anyway – will be released back into society someday, into our communities, where they can practice the skills they learned from their prison tutors. We might not want to think about them now, but they may very well be part of our future.