By Editorial Board, Published: October 15
WHAT DO you do with children suspected or convicted of committing very adult crimes? The answer isn’t easy, particularly when violence is involved. One thing that’s clear, though: Standing policy should not be to warehouse youth in adult jails and prisons, unless there are no other reasonable options. Encouragingly, a new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice finds that, over the past eight years, nearly half the states have changed various laws to discourage shunting minors through the adult criminal justice system when it isn’t necessary.
Research has shown that locking up minors anywhere is rarely a great way to prevent repeat offenses. But when they have to be incarcerated, they need safety, structure and education.
Teenagers are not fully developed; studies have shown that their brains aren’t as capable of moral reasoning and impulse control as adults in their early or mid-20s. They don’t have as much mastery over their environment as adults do, which contributes to their susceptibility to peer pressure and other potentially destructive influences. There is also more hope of rehabilitating young offenders. Those are among the reasons that the Supreme Court last year insisted, echoing a case from 1910, that punishment of minors must be properly “graduated and proportioned.”
Yet, the report notes, citing figures that are a few years old, there are some “100,000 youth who are placed in adult jails and prisons each year.” When minors are thrown into adult jails and prisons, often simply to await trial, they don’t get the structure and educational opportunities necessary for growth or rehabilitation. They are also extremely vulnerable to harm. “More than any other group of incarcerated persons,” a federal panel reported in 2009, “youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”
Since 2005, 23 states have changed policies to reflect these considerations, often with wide bipartisan support. States such as Texas have made it easier for state boards or judges to place minors in juvenile detention, even if they are awaiting trial in adult court. States such as Illinois have given juvenile courts jurisdiction over offenders up to 18 years of age. And states such as Arizona have offered minors more recourse to challenge their diversion into adult court.
Federal policy deserves at least some credit for this trend. Activists have pointed out that these sorts of reforms will help states comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is finally phasing in. The law obliges states to keep minors away from adults and to avoid inflicting the hell of solitary confinement on them. If states don’t comply, they could lose some federal funding.
It should not take that sort of federal stick, though, to encourage states to continue seeking the right balance between society’s need to punish crime and the importance of avoiding penalties that are overly harsh, ineffective or both.
National Juvenile Justice Network
1319 F Street, Suite 402
Washington, DC 20004
Contact: Paul Lefton 321-206-5722 pl*****@ba***.edu
Orlando, Fla. (Sept. 18, 2013) – The Public Welfare Foundation has awarded $150,000 to the Youth Defense Institute at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law. The grant enables Barry Law to advance its community mission of protecting children’s rights.
The Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Program provides grants to promote systemic reforms aimed at ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth as adults, and to promote equitable treatment of all young Americans. Because Florida prosecutes more children in the adult system than any other state, the Youth Defense Institute’s work falls squarely within the Foundation’s interests.
The Institute was created by Barry Law Dean Leticia M. Diaz and the Law School faculty. With support from the Florida Bar Foundation, its first activities included addressing Florida cases in which children were sentenced to life without parole. For the past three years, the Institute has served as the statewide clearinghouse and support system for strategic litigation exclusively on juvenile life sentences without parole. Based on the success of its collaborative work with attorneys throughout Florida, the Institute recently expanded its mission to the much large realm of strategic litigation aimed at any process where children are at risk of being charged as an adult.
“Our Youth Defense Institute has produced amazing result in just a few years’ time,” Diaz said. “This $150,000 grant is not only an endorsement of our mission, but also an important resource that will enable us to better target the Florida jurisdictions sending the most children to the adult criminal justice system.”
Ilona Vila, Director of the Institute at Barry Law, said the Public Welfare Foundation’s support “speaks volumes about the extraordinary work done by Florida attorneys dedicated to protecting children’s rights.”
“The United States Supreme Court has now handed down three cases with the message that children are different,” Vila said. “The Court has repeatedly identified the marked differences between children and adults in maturity, ability to appreciate consequences of their actions, culpability and the possibility for change and rehabilitation. Getting that message by reducing the unjust prosecution of children as adults through strategic litigation is what the Institute is all about.”
Established in 1999, the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando offers a quality legal education in a caring, diverse environment. A Catholic-oriented institution with a current enrollment of more than 750 students, Barry Law School challenges students to accept intellectual, personal, ethical, spiritual, and social responsibilities, and commits itself to assuring an atmosphere of religious freedom. Barry University School of Law is fully accredited by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association, 321 North Clark Street Chicago, IL 60654, (312) 988-6738.
PAUL E. LEFTON
Media Relations and Marketing Manager