November 20, 2007

Call for juvenile justice reform

The New York Times today issued a radical call for juvenile justice reform. The editorial was triggered by a new report by the Campaign for Youth Justice that lays out the scope of the crisis in juvenile incarceration. As many as 150,000 juveniles are currently incarcerated in adult jails, where they are often raped, beaten, or pushed to suicide. The full report and an executive summary of "Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America," are available here. The editorial begins:
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 created a far-sighted partnership between the federal government and the states that agreed to remake often barbaric juvenile justice systems in exchange for federal aid. Unfortunately, those gains have been steadily rolled back since the 1990s when states began sending ever larger numbers of juveniles to adult jails — where they face a high risk of being battered, raped or pushed to suicide. The act is due to be reauthorized this year, and Congress needs to use that opportunity to reverse this destructive trend.

As incredible as it seems, many states regard a child as young as 10 as competent to stand trial in juvenile court. More than 40 states regard children as young as 14 as "of age" and old enough to stand trial in adult court....

Some jails try to protect young inmates by placing them in isolation, where they are locked in small cells for 23 hours a day. This worsens mental disorders. The study says that young people are 36 times as likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile facility. Young people who survive adult jail too often return home as damaged and dangerous people. Studies show that they are far more likely to commit violent crimes — and to end up back inside — than those who are handled through the juvenile courts.

The rush to criminalize children has set the country on a dangerous path. Congress must now reshape the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act so that it provides the states with the money and the expertise they need to develop more enlightened juvenile justice policies. For starters, it should rewrite the law to prohibit the confinement of children in adult jails.
The full editorial is online here. The "Jailing Juveniles" report summarizes data from seven key states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It calls for radical changes in the way that juveniles are transferred to adult court, such as requiring that a judge - rather than a prosecutor - make that decision. Among the findings:
  • Far from the image of the juvenile superpredator, most children tried as adults are charged with non-violent offenses.
  • The number of youths being housed in adult jails is increasing, thereby jeopardizing the safety of more and more young people.
  • New state laws often contradict core federal protections meant to prohibit juveniles from being confined with adult prisoners.