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A Guide to Juvenile Justice

Keeping our country’s youth out of prison.

  • James Cullen
July 18, 2018

Written by Ty Parks with James Cullen.

Prison is not built for kids, but there are nearly 50,000 children under 18 behind bars every day. As the conversation about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration expands, it is important to consider the issues faced by this most vulnerable group — and why they should be treated differently than adults.

In brief, young peoples’ brains are still developing (a process that continues until about age 25), making them not only less able to determine right from wrong but also more receptive to rehabilitation. From arrest to incarceration, the juvenile justice system must incorporate policies that reflect these differences. Below is a brief guide to three of the most significant ways to improve juvenile justice. 

1. Keep Youth Out of Adult Prisons 

Despite the cognitive differences between children and adults, about 4,300 juveniles are housed in adult facilities on any given day — and approximately 200,000 juveniles are processed through the adult criminal justice system annually. Children in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted there than in a juvenile facility. Moreover, children who have spent time in an adult facility are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts who were in a juvenile facility. 

Taking juveniles out of the adult system — and prosecuting them within a special, juvenile justice system —  is one useful change. Campaign for Youth Justice, a youth advocacy organization, published an extensive report last year on how to accomplish this goal. One recommendation is to raise the age at which young people are still included in the juvenile system. At one point, some states called for children as young as 16 or 17 to be prosecuted as adults. But in June of 2017, North Carolina became the last state to raise the maximum age for juvenile court prosecution to 18.  

2. Use Alternatives to Incarceration

Incarcerating young people in juvenile facilities is certainly an improvement over having them behind bars with adults. One option is to set as a default that children should not go to prison. Incarcerating kids disconnects them from their families, disrupts their education, and exposes them to more violence. Research shows that juvenile incarceration can “interrupt the natural process of ‘aging out of delinquency’” and does not reduce recidivism

Using community-based programs instead of youth prisons (which one specialist called “wasteful factories of failure”) are less expensive and more effective alternatives. Several cities are trying this approach. Philadelphia, for example, gives first-time, nonviolent felony drug sellers the chance to enroll in “The Choice Is Yours,” a diversion program for young adults that allows those who complete the program to have their criminal records expunged. The program works — its graduates rarely re-offend. The 13-percent recidivism rate is significantly lower than the 40 to 60 percent recidivism rates for similar offenses. 

3. End Juvenile Life Without Parole 

There are approximately 2,570 children serving a permanent prison sentence, which is called “juvenile life without parole” (JLWOP). With no chance of release, this punishment is essentially a juvenile death sentence. Worse, imposition of the punishment has a clear racial bias. According to a 2017 report by The Sentencing Project, while only “23.2 percent of juvenile arrests for murder involve an African American suspected of killing a white person, 42.4 percent of JLWOP sentences are for an African American convicted of this crime.” 

The Supreme Court has taken major steps to end this juvenile death sentence, first in 2012 and again in 2016. Thanks to the 2016 decision, some juveniles who were subjected to a JLWOP sentence can now apply for parole. Additionally, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have outlawed JLWOP. The rest of the country should follow their lead.

(Photo: Thinkstock)