July fourth is the 239th birthday of the United States of America. While the country gathers to commemorate the vision of the founding fathers’ as they signed the Declaration of Independence, I can’t help but to think about populations who were excluded from the founding documents. The Bill of Rights, for example, extended to only those who were governed—at the time that meant only white men. The enslaved, women, First Nation persons, and children were among those individuals exempt from the promises of freedom and liberty protected by the Bill of Rights.
More than two centuries later we have made progress in terms of extending these protections to more of our citizens. Youth, however, are not one of those groups. One hundred years after the establishment of a separate juvenile court, we are still depriving children of their liberty, incarcerating more than 60,000 youth per year, the vast majority for non violent crimes including truancy and running away from home. More egregiously, we continue to lock up nearly 100,000 children charged as adults in adult jails and prisons each year, many for property and drug offenses. We persist in implementing and supporting these harmful policies despite the lowest juvenile crime rates in 30 years. The youth crime rate has fallen approximately 43% since the 1990’s, and the most serious crimes have fallen even more rapidly—the number of murders involving a juvenile fell by 67% over a similar time period.
Youth prosecuted as adults forfeit their rights to a childhood and are expected to take on the responsibilities of adults. Below find rights of childhood that youth tried in the criminal justice system forfeit:
1.Right to be seen as a child who is capable of making mistakes; even egregious ones.
Despite brain research and Supreme Court findings that adolescent brains are different from adults, youth tried as adults are no longer afforded the rehabilitative presumption of juvenile court; instead they are punished as adults with a focus on retribution.
Furthermore, an abundance of research shows that most serious youth offenders will age out of criminal behavior, and that harsh punishment experienced in the adult system actually leads to an increase in re-offending, making communities less safe.
2 .Right to equal treatment.
Children are not all treated the same in the adult criminal justice system. African American, Latino, and Tribal youth are between 2-9 times more likely to be prosecuted in adult court than their White counterparts. These disparities grow even larger by sentencing, with African American young men receiving the harshest sentences for their actions.
3. Right to safety.
Children in the adult criminal justice system forfeit their rights to safety. Housed in adult facilities, they are much more likely to be sexually, physically, or emotionally victimized by other inmates and correctional officers.
4. Right to be part of a family.
Youth in adult facilities often lack access to their families. Frequently held far away from home, in facilities that often prohibit in-person visits or charge exorbitant rates for phone calls, youth often lose touch with their families when they are in adult facilities.
Unlike in youth facilities, where best practices encourage family engagement in the rehabilitation of a young person, youth in adult facilities are presumed to be independent of their families.
5. Right to learn.
Many adult facilities don’t offer education opportunities. Those that do are limited in their scope, and aren’t aligned with state education standards, so many youth don’t earn credit for the schoolwork they completed while detained. Only 1 in 10 children who have been incarcerated continue their education after release.
6. Right to repair their wrongs.
Youth prosecuted as adults aren’t able to make amends to their victims and communities. The voices of victims matter. Too often the government assumes victims want retribution and punishment, and exclude them from the lengthy court process. Research shows that some victims favor restorative justice practices which allows for the victims to be heard and have a voice in determining outcomes. Restorative justice practices increase the chances of a young person being rehabilitated and staying away from future criminal behavior.
7.Right to respect and dignity as a human being.
Violent security tactics, pepper spray, shackles, and other abhorrent practices become all to normal for youth in adult jails and prisons. Not only do youth lose their right to safety through these conditions, they lose their right to compassion and humanity.
Far too many youth enter the adult criminal justice system only to come out as uneducated, unskilled adults--far from being able to declare any independence from the system or their families. As we reflect upon our nation's independence, let's not overstate how far this country has come in regards to the rights of our young people.