Congress must replace youth prisons with something that actually helps youth

This October marks Youth Justice Action Month, which has now become a national rallying cry for a new approach to youth justice. In the 13 years since the first action month, many conditions have changed for youth in the legal system, but one fact remains the same: the youth legal system doesn’t work. 

Congress has the opportunity to build a youth legal system that truly puts the safety and well-being of young Americans first, by creating age-appropriate protections and practices for children who come into contact with the federal legal system, and passing a budget that includes funding for states to close and repurpose youth prisons.

Today, children as young as 6 years old are being pushed into courtrooms and expected to follow complex court proceedings that most adults have to attend law school and pass the bar exam to understand. While judges ask them whether they understand the ramifications of their actions, children color pictures with crayons as shackles intended for adults fall off their wrists. 

Youth in group care facilities are pinned to the ground and choked for playfully throwing a sandwich, never to breathe again. And today, youth are still pushed into adult courtrooms, sentenced as adults, and committed to facilities that predominantly house adults where they are at increased risk of abuse and suicide.

While the youth legal system is charged with getting children on a path to success, it actually criminalizes them for normal adolescent behaviors drawing them deeper into a system that punishes and perpetuates trauma. Research and real-world experience shows that youth would be better served outside of the legal system. 

What if the same young child throwing a tantrum in a classroom was met with school counselors who called their parents for emotional support? What if after throwing a sandwich, the teenager had to clean the cafeteria instead of being put in a choke hold? What if we had a truly just youth legal system that insisted on providing children with tools to better regulate their emotions and express themselves healthily?

It is well past time for change. What we need is bold, innovative thinking that uproots our system and plants seeds to repair harm and restore humanity to our approach to youth misbehavior is needed.

Luckily, we’ve learned a lot in 13 years. We’ve learned that we can ensure better outcomes for youth with commonsense solutions such as ensuring parents are notified when their child is arrested, requiring attorneys be present when youth are questioned by police, and prioritizing programs that allow youth to be held accountable in their home communities. States and jurisdictions across the country have shown us that we can shrink the over reliance on incarceration and promote better outcomes for youth by resourcing communities with mental health services, restorative justice programs, and opportunities for employment and engagement. 

California, Massachusetts, and New York have taken steps to prevent children under 12 years old from coming into contact with the legal system. Missouri, Michigan and the Carolinas have passed legislation to limit the number of 16 and 17 year olds that can be processed in adult courts. And more and more states and localities are shutting the large youth prisons that have long been a mainstay of the traditional youth legal system, and replacing them with community-based approaches that keep youth at or close to home and offer needed support  services, and opportunities in their own neighborhoods. These approaches have resulted in positive outcomes, including better educational and health outcomes, and declines in recidivism and arrest for youth in community programs.

Momentum is on our side in the states, but our federal system has yet to catch up. We need our nation’s leaders to follow states’ lead and invest in this type of change. Congress is currently considering legislation which would protect kids charged in the federal system at the point of arrest, increase the minimum age that a youth can be charged as an adult from 13 to 16 years old, and end extreme sentences for youth. They are also considering allocating $100 million to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to incentivize and support states who want to close youth prisons and invest in community alternatives. These are commonsense approaches we know can work for kids and public safety. 

Our children deserve better. The time is now for the House to pass and the Senate to take up the Protecting Miranda Rights for Kids Act, Sara’s Law and the Preventing Unfair Sentencing Act of 2021, and the Childhood Offenders Rehabilitation and Safety Act of 2021.

Patrick McCarthy is a Senior Fellow and Stoneleigh Fellow with the Justice Lab at Columbia University. He is the former president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former division director at the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. K. Ricky Watson, Jr. is the executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Tags Criminal justice Juvenile court juvenile justice Youth incarceration in the United States

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