Kids in jail: time out to hard time

TEXAS-AUSTIN (US)—Trying and sentencing children as young as 7 in adult courts occurs with alarming frequency and devastating results in the United States, according to a new policy report.

The study from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin provides the first comprehensive look at how the nation treats pre-adolescent children (primarily those age 12 and younger) who commit serious crimes.

“State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research,” says lead author Michele Deitch, an attorney who teaches justice policy. “The adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids. Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults. Lawmakers must reconsider and reverse these punitive laws.”

The report finds that more than half the states permit children age 12 and younger to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court. Four states stand out as providing the worst possible outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Other key findings from the study include:

  • Every year, nearly 80 children age 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court. Between 1985 and 2004, 703 children age 12 and younger, and 961 children age 13 were judicially transferred to adult court.
  • There are almost as many youth treated as adults for property crimes as for crimes against persons. Determinations about when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult are marked by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities.
  • On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children younger than 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. In these adult facilities, the youth face vastly higher risks of physical and sexual assault and suicide than they would face in juvenile facilities. The youngest children are at particular risk.
  • The United States is severely out of step with international law and practice. Most countries—including those Western nations most similar to the United States, countries in the developing world, Islamic nations, and even countries often considered to be human rights violators—repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences.

The study makes several recommendations to national and state policymakers. Children should be kept in the juvenile justice system and mandatory sentencing for young children in adult criminal court should be disallowed.  Judges should have the discretion to take into account a youth offender’s attitudes toward rehabilitation.

Also, the report recommends that, regardless of sentence length, youth offenders should always be provided parole opportunities and should never be housed with the adult criminal population.

The 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) where children as young as 7 can be treated as adults are:  Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  In addition, Kansas and Vermont set the age at 10, and Colorado, Missouri, and Montana allow 12 year olds to be transferred to adult court.

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