Adult prison sentences make no sense for children

All children and youth in the United States deserve the opportunity to develop their potential and pursue the American dream. But for too many young people who unnecessarily come in contact with our criminal justice system, these possibilities are stymied.

And, there is more than enough evidence that black and Latino youth are treated more harshly than white youth by teachers, school administrators, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges for the same conduct. Involvement—even minor contact—can become a barrier for youth to access higher education, serve in the military, secure housing or find a job.

Every year, tens of thousands of youth are needlessly prosecuted as adults, weighing them down and hampering their potential and dreams for tomorrow. Most of the youth charged as adults are not charged with serious crimes.

{mosads}In fact, most of the youth charged as adults reside in the seven states that still consider them to be criminally responsible before their 18th birthday, no matter how small the act. In these states, youth under 18 can’t sign a contract, are bound by truancy laws, need parental approval to attend an R-rated movie, but can be charged and convicted as an adult at the age of 16 or 17.


Fortunately, this is beginning to change. 

A powerful report released this week, “Raising the Age: shifting to a more effective juvenile justice system,” by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) highlights one straightforward way to improve our justice system.

The Report shows that states which haven’t yet raised the age should follow the lead of states that have already done so by moving teenagers out of the adult justice system and into the youth justice system.

The states that have raised the age in the past decade saw youth crime, and youth incarceration fall as much or more than the trend in the rest of the country. This is smart public policy and one that the Obama Administration supported when I served as Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity at the White House Domestic Policy Council.

We supported “raising the age” because research showed these laws enhance public safety, keep young people safe, and save taxpayer dollars by developing fairer and more effective juvenile justice systems.

It is clear that this is a racial justice issue as well as a public safety issue.  For example, in New York, North Carolina and Michigan, all of whom are contemplating raising the age, young people of color are grossly over represented in the justice system.

In New York State, eight out of 10 people sentenced to prison are people of color, and nine out of 10 young people sentenced to prison from New York City are young people of color. 

In North Carolina, black youth are 62 percent of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. 

In Michigan in 2012, 59 percent of youth who were waived or designated as adults were black, even though they only made up 18 percent of the statewide youth population.

Given these gross disparities, we need policies that will treat all youth fairly while making the most effective use of scarce taxpayer dollars. We need to do everything we can to ensure that when a young person has a brush with the law, the justice system is increasing the chances that they will leave crime behind and move on to become productive citizens.

Raising the Age provides this opportunity by ensuring that youth are served in a system that is developmentally appropriate, and that connects youth to school and work to help them move past delinquency and contribute to the community throughout their lives.

That’s the approach that we would all want for our own kids, and it’s the best strategy for getting kids on the right track and helping to make safer and stronger communities.

What we currently do to so many of our kids is a travesty.  Please use the facts and your voice to push for change.

Roy L. Austin, Jr. is a Partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, LLP.

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

Tags Crime Criminal justice reform Jail mass incarceration Prison Prison reform youth justice
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