Across the United States, our criminal justice system sentences thousands of children as adults and sends them to adult prisons. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18. Almost 3000 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Even 13 year olds have been tried as adults and sentenced to die in prisons, usually with no consideration of their age or circumstances of their offenses.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court banned death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes and mandatory death-in-prison sentences for all children. Judges in trial courts must now consider children’s individual characteristics and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime. And it was only in 2005, after 365 children had been legally executed in the U.S., that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles. These successes were hard fought and a long time coming. Organizations like Equal Justice Initiative and leaders such as Bryan Stevenson have paved the way with courageous advocacy on behalf of these children sentenced to die in prison.
However, there is still much work to be done for these kids caught in a system that mostly ignores the perils of poor and marginalized youth today. Abuse and neglect. Family and community violence. Poverty. Inadequate schools. Lack of jobs. Diminished opportunity. Thwarted promise. And we continue to ignore these harsh realities, these crises and dysfunctions, that create child delinquency. Instead, we throw them in jail and lock them up in prison, further victimizing these young victims.
You must watch/listen to Josh’s story. Words cannot describe…
O Lord, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
For we are all messed up like a person compromised with impurity;
even all our right efforts are like soiled rags…
- 14 states still have no minimum age for trying children as adults — children as young as 8 have been prosecuted as adults.
- Around 10,000 children are locked up in adult jails and prisons each day in the U.S.
- Children are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prisons than in juvenile facilities.
- Incarcerated children face increased risk of suicide.
- 250,000 children have been tried as adults and sent to adult prisons since the 1980s.
- Most of these harsh policies against juveniles in the criminal justice system began in the 1980s with a movement labeling certain youth as “super-predators”. Oh, and by 2000, many of these “super-predator” criminologists acknowledged they were wrong. The coming crime-wave had not arrived. But the damage had been done, and you can see where this has brought us.
- “While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.” *see Best Practices in Juvenile Justice Reform (link below)
And again, it is the poor and communities of color that suffer disproportionately.
- 70% of condemned children 14 or younger are children of color.
- Don’t forget that a recent study reported that police see black children as less innocent and less young than white children.
- Youth in the juvenile justice system come disproportionately from impoverished single-parent homes located in disinvested neighborhoods and have high rates of learning disabilities, mental health, and substance abuse problems.
Here are some more resources and some organizations working for transformation.
- Equal Justice Initiative
- Models for Change
- Advancement Project
- The Sentencing Project
- Superpredators and Other Myths About Juvenile Justice
- Best Practices in Juvenile Justice Reform
- Annie E. Casey Foundation; one of their reports: Youth Violence Myths and Realities
Give us ears to hear, eyes to see, and feet to follow into prayerful acts for Your beloved children, O God of Love and Justice!