“The goal of our juvenile system should be to help the youngsters live better lives. Because their brains - and their consciences - are still in the formative stage, there is a better chance that juveniles can be rehabilitated.” - Pat Nolan, Director of CCJR
Because their brains are not fully developed, children are particularly vulnerable when incarcerated. Having minors in the adult criminal justice system raises serious concerns about education, drug treatment, cognitive development, and prison rape.
Criminal cases for juveniles should be handled more sensitively in the context of conditions of detention, shackling, and forms of detention. Handling juvenile justice cases with the requisite sensitivity allows the criminal justice system to advance public safety while preserving human dignity.
Of course public safety must be the government’s first priority. Young offenders need to be held accountable, as actions must have consequences. However, numerous studies show that long sentences have the perverse impact of increasing the propensity of criminal behavior among young offenders. In essence, sending teens to adult-style incarceration often teaches them to be better criminals.
It is noteworthy that juvenile crime in America today is significantly lower than it was a decade ago. According to the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, juvenile arrests per year are 50% lower than they were in 2005. Despite these encouraging numbers, smart reforms are needed at the state and federal levels to give teens opportunities for redemption and to become productive members of society.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The High Court recently applied the precedent retroactively in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). Now, approximately 2,500 juveniles sentenced to LWOP have the ability to appeal their case and prove their successful rehabilitation. Of course, not every young person going through the system will turn his or her life around. The system has a lengthy process in place for assessing LWOP juvenile offenders who qualify for parole.
LWOP juveniles must show the parole board that they have participated in programs that prepare them to support themselves and stay on the straight and narrow when they are released. They must convince the parole board that they are remorseful and have changed, and therefore no longer pose a threat to the community. Only then might they be given a parole date.
If an offender does not prove to be fully rehabilitated and remains a potential risk to public safety, he or she will remain in prison.
Each state decides how many years must pass before a juvenile serving a life term can have a chance at parole. For example, in California it’s 25 years. CCJR urges legislators to consider policies that promote rehabilitation and provide opportunities to demonstrate redemption.
The practice of shackling children can cause physical, emotional, and psychological harm and is, in most cases, unjustified. Shackling may include handcuffs, leg irons, and belly chains. Government officials should take into account a child’s age, height, weight, gender, health, offense, and threat to self or public safety before shackling a juvenile. No child should be subject to shackling unless the court judge finds that the restraint is reasonably necessary to maintain order, prevent the juvenile’s escape, or provide for the safety of the courtroom. Many states (see report below) have modernized their practices by enacting legislation, which severely restricts the use of juvenile shackling.
Raise the Age
Of the 1.3 million inmates serving in U.S. state prison facilities, almost 1,000 are juveniles. In April, New York enacted legislation to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, leaving North Carolina as the only remaining state that continues to prosecute 16 year olds as adults - even those arrested for something as minor as stealing a candy bar.
Legislatures should strengthen “raise the age” laws to keep juveniles in youth jurisdictions, specifically for those under 18 who commit low-level offenses. Children convicted of more serious crimes, such as violent felonies, could still be assigned to the adult system if a judge sees fit. In those instances, however, sight and sound contact provisions need to be established to protect youth from adult inmates.
Juveniles should never be incarcerated alongside adults. Placing young people in adult jails makes them more likely to become victims of rape and assault, and to commit suicide. Furthermore, the skills these kids develop to defend themselves inside an adult jail will make them more dangerous when they are released.
In addition, the damage of a harsh juvenile justice system where 16 and 17 year olds are charged as adults for low-level crimes continues long after their release. Youth charged as adults carry the stigma of an adult criminal record far after their release from prison. A criminal record makes it much harder to get a job, enroll in college and find housing. Without employment, work skills, or a stable place to live, they are far more likely to get into trouble again.
Fortunately, the North Carolina legislature is considering legislation to "Raise the Age" of youth jurisdiction in its 2017 session.
Most adults can recall poor teenage decisions that could have resulted in criminal charges. For one reason or another, they didn’t get caught, or victim harm was avoided. Youth offenders should pay a price for their crime committed, and make amends with their victim whenever possible. However, the harm from a criminal sentence should never outweigh the harm of the crime committed. Let’s keep these principles in mind as we seek to bring justice and extend mercy to young adults in the United States today.