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Several years ago in South Carolina, a 12-year-old boy named Christopher Pitman was sentenced 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole for killing his beloved grandparents. He had been having an adverse reaction to a new antidepressant he had just begun taking. He was at the age of 12, not old enough for high school or even getting to see a Harry Potter movie on his own and he was facing a sentence almost three times as long as he’d been alive. The judge who sentenced him in this case, an adult criminal court judge had no discretion at all under the law to impose a shorter sentence because of his younger age. Who are these kids going into the adult system? How do they get there in the first place and what have they done? What happens when they are confined to adult prisons?
I was shocked to discover how widespread this practice is of kids going into the adult system more than half the states allow kids 12 and over to be prosecuted as adults and there are 22 states in which a child as young as seven can be prosecuted as an adult. Think about that age 7. What were you doing at the age of 7? Playing with dolls? Skateboards? Learning addition in second grade? One day these kids are facing timeout for their misbehavior and the next day they are facing a hard time. What’s crazy about this situation is that the juvenile system was designed to work with kids this age whether they committed minor offenses or even serious crimes like murder. The juvenile court provides age-appropriate interventions that are designed to take advantage of the fact that the teenage brain is still malleable. Kids can still be held accountable in juvenile court but the focus is on rehabilitation rather than on merely being punitive. In contrast, if these kids go into adult court, they are facing a lifetime of consequences from having an adult criminal court record.
They’re not going to get the rehabilitative programs and the services that they need and depending on the seriousness of the crime they can be facing incredibly long sentences, sometimes even life without the possibility of parole. Sometimes those sentences are even mandatory. Just to be clear, I’m in no way trying to excuse the seriousness of the crimes committed by kids. I’m not suggesting they should be let off the hook. There were real victims here and there needs to be accountability for these youth and above all these boys need treatment to make sure they’re not going to offend but when we look to the adult criminal justice system rather than the juvenile justice system to deal with kids this age then we have lost all rational sense of what our justice system is supposed to be. You’re probably thinking well at least we’re talking about the worst of the worst and these kids have probably all committed murder. Right? Well, I assumed that was the case too until I learned that that was a myth.
Many kids go into adult for property offenses not just for violent crimes. In some states, only a small fraction of them have been charged with murder and in many cases, they are first time offenders. In fact, it turns out that whether a kid goes into adult court depends on which county he comes from or which judge handled the case than with what his offense is or what his record looks like. Today, many states require or allow kids who are charged as adults to be held in adult prison, adult jails while they’re awaiting trial, while they’re still innocent in the eyes of the law.
In the United States, there are about 10,000 kids under the age of 18 currently being confined in adult prison. There are serious problems with holding them. The youth who are held with adult prisoners have much greater risks of physical and sexual assault than those held in the juvenile system. In some instances, kids commit suicide. For those youth that isn’t mixed in with adult prisoners, they’re often held in solitary confinement for their own protection. That’s 23 hours a day lockup with one hour of “out of cell time”. They’re not even getting the programs or services or education. Think about the impact that isolation and deprivation would have on a child’s mental health, social development, intellectual development, or even their physical development. If a parent treated a child like this it would be considered abuse. Why can’t we as a society set a standard that we should treat these children the way we would want our own child treated if he or she got into trouble? The issue here is that adult prisons and jails are simply a poor fit for these kids.
We need to change the laws and policies that allow kids under the age of 18 to be held in adult prisons and jails. Not only is this practice inhumane, it’s also counterproductive from a public safety perspective. Research shows that youth in adult facilities have a 34% greater risk of recidivism than those who are held in juvenile settings. that’s because the juvenile system is better equipped to work with these kids. The focus is on rehabilitation on changing lives on giving kids a second chance.
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