We often hear of the exceptional nature of the justice system in the United States. Indeed, our Constitution is meant to ensure that the rule of law holds sway above all else. As such, we are committed to treating our people fairly – without consideration of their age, gender, race, or religion. While our founding document has not always protected the most vulnerable among us, it has – over time – come to be the safeguard against the worst forms of abuse by government.

On International Human Rights Day, we are reminded that we still have much progress to make. In past efforts to decrease crime, lawmakers lost sight of how to treat all Americans justly, and led us down a path of mass incarceration, with great racial disparity in its application. And perhaps is this scenario no more egregious than the imprisonment of children throughout the country. Some are locked alone in cages.  Some are shackled. Some are physically or sexually assaulted. All in violation of the fundamental human right to life.


Every day in the United States, over 50,000 youth are in youth prisons or other out of home placements due to their involvement with the juvenile justice system. For many young people, entering a youth prison closely resembles the experience of entering an adult prison.

Uniformed guards bring in young people restrained in handcuffs and leg irons, pat-frisk or strip search them, issue them institutional undergarments and jumpsuits, and then lock them into cell blocks. Youth who disobey rules can lose “privileges” such as recreation, showers, or phone calls home. Staff are often trained to manage youth who act out by using solitary confinement, physical restraints or, in some cases, chemical restraints such as pepper spray. We know the rate of sexual victimization allegations per 1,000 youth held in state juvenile systems more than doubled, from 19 per 1,000 youth in 2005 to 47 per 1,000 in 2012. A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found one in ten youth in youth prisons have been sexually victimized. The survey also found that youth identifying as LGB experienced youth-on-youth sexual assault 10 times more frequently than heterosexual youth. Exposed to violence, sexual assaults, solitary confinement, and other atrocities unknown to us, youth in juvenile prisons deserve better treatment and a voice during National Human Rights Day.

While the delinquent acts committed by youth serving sentences in youth prisons require an appropriate and measured response, research shows us that prison does nothing to rehabilitate and prevent future crime. The recently released report by the National Institute of Justice and Harvard University, The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model, shows that the youth prison model is an appalling failure as it doesn’t promote safety for youth or communities. The report calls for the replacement of the failed youth prison model with a system of evidence-informed community-based solutions that promote public safety and rehabilitation of youth.

In uneasy times filled with throwback “tough on crime” language, we must stand up for what works for youth—and not what’s ineffective, costly, and inhumane. We stand up for youth involved in the delinquency system because while there should be consequences to delinquent behavior, we know prisons are not the answer. We stand up for defining public safety as reducing recidivism, making communities whole, and ensuring youth receive rehabilitative services to assist with better decision making. We stand up because it’s the right thing to do.

Carmen Daugherty is Policy Director, Youth First 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.