Criminal justice system treats children like small adults
December 7, 2017
Children are different than adults. It’s a fact we all recognize. It’s why our laws don't permit children to drive, drink alcohol or vote. It's why youth are not allowed to enter into marital contracts nor enlist in the military. However, the basic recognition that children are developmentally unable to engage in complex social pursuits such as these, is too often lost when a child enters our criminal justice system.
Recent advances in neuro and cognitive science have verified what we already knew about children through “common sense.” For example, by common sense we already knew that adolescents are prone to experimentation, and that youthful judgment can be mistaken. Advancements in neuroscience now show us that there are, in fact, neurologic underpinnings for those common sense observations.
We now know that the multitude of neural connections in the brain are not complete at birth — in fact, they develop rapidly in the first few years of life, and continue through adolescence and into early adulthood. The brain's frontal lobes, which mediate a person's ability to weigh consequences of actions and moderate impulses, are not fully developed until as late as the mid-20s (keep that in mind the next time you hand the car keys to your teenager!). Our common sense also told us that children are highly reactive to their environment. Hence, parents' efforts to do all they can to have their children involved in healthy, character-building pursuits.
To quote Franklin Zimring, J.D. at University of California, Berkeley, "At its core, Anglo American criminal law is about punishment — about the intentional infliction of harm on persons who have committed blame-worthy acts. We punish because we believe such harm is morally deserved by a particular individual for a particular act." However, that is precisely why we have a juvenile justice system at all — it is a system specifically for youth, who by common sense we recognize ought not be treated like small adults, and who need and deserve rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Nonetheless, our common sense is too often lost when it comes to youth in our juvenile justice system. Rather than having a system which restores them to healthy development, we too often traumatize children further. Between 2010 and 2015, nearly 600 Alabama youth were charged as adults each year. Most of those youth — 65 percent — were charged in the adult criminal court by the decision of the prosecuting attorney, without judicial review in the juvenile court as to whether that course was appropriate or necessary. Once charged, youth are held in adult facilities without educational opportunities or rehabilitative services tailored to their age. To ensure that they are separated from adults in these facilities, children are sometimes placed in solitary confinement — housed alone in small cells for up to 23 hours a day.
As of July of this year, there were 57 youth (ages 15-18) in adult prisons around our state. And as common sense would have told us, the children who are treated in such a way too often do not fare well. Compared to others their age, children housed in adult facilities are five times more likely to experience sexual assault, and 19 times more likely to commit suicide.
Yet there are reasons for hope. The Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force is currently finalizing a report on our state's juvenile justice system and making recommendations for a bill to be introduced in the Legislature at the beginning of the session in January 2018.
This is an unprecedented opportunity to end our state's practice of subjecting youth to the trauma of adult incarceration. Alabama must do all it can to provide serious rehabilitation to its youth who have made serious mistakes.
Children should never be prosecuted as adults.
Children should never be sentenced as adults.
Children should never be traumatized by incarceration in adult facilities.
Children should never spend years (much less decades) in incarceration.
Psychology, psychiatry and cognitive sciences have informed us that these steps are worthwhile. But, our common sense should have told us that already.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!