Juveniles in the adult justice system
In the United States, young people under age 18 canít
vote, purchase cigarettes or alcohol, drive alone without restrictions
in some states, or participate in many other activities our society
reserves for adults. Children under age 18 arenít legally considered
adults yet, and as a result, many laws are designed especially to
But there is a crucial exception: Almost 250,000 young people under 18
are transferred into the adult criminal justice system each year.
Children and youths are being criminalized at younger and younger ages
and often for behavior that used to be handled in the principalís
During the late 1980s and 1990s, major policy changes
in virtually every state re-categorized many juvenile offenses as adult
crimes and juvenile offenders as adult criminals. Many Americans might
assume that only young people who commit the most violent crimes are at
risk of being tried as adults and incarcerated with adult prisoners. But
the majority of teens who are tried and sentenced in adult court arenít
the serious, violent, chronic offenders who might have been subject to
the death penalty, which was only recently struck down for juvenile
Juvenile court judges have always had the power to evaluate those kinds
of serious violent offenders and send them to the adult system if they
thought it was warranted.
Today many states have passed new laws that require automatic transfers
of juvenile offenders to adult court without any individualized
evaluation of their cases based simply on the nature of the offense or
the young personís age.
In many states, prosecutors are required to file
certain cases in adult court even if itís against their better judgment.
In fact, nearly 90 percent of youths transferred to the adult system
nationwide are there because of a lowered age of adulthood in 13 states.
This means they are automatically tried in the adult system solely
because their state has lowered the age of adulthood in the criminal
code. In these states, any young person accused of an offense who is 17
years oldóor 16 years old in three of the 13 statesówill be sent into
the adult criminal justice system for any offense whether it is serious
or not. Each year, as many as 218,000 youths under age 18 are
automatically excluded from the juvenile justice system solely because
of their age.
This growing trend is threatening to get even worse: right now, both the
House and Senate are considering bills that would make transferring
youths easier and more likely at the federal level. The House version
has already been passed. It was introduced partly in response to recent
gang activity involving teenagers and young adults. But will treating
more juveniles as adult criminals help stop juvenile crime or simply
provide them worse criminal mentors?
In reality, transferring youths has already been
proved to be a failed public policy. The facts show that trying and
sentencing youths in adult criminal court is harmful rather than
helpful. Research shows over and over that prosecuting young people as
adults increases rather than reduces youth crime. Jails and prisons are
crime schools. We already know that compared to young people prosecuted
as juveniles, young people prosecuted as adults are more likely to
commit a greater number of crimes upon release; commit more violent
crimes upon release; and commit crimes sooner upon release. Not only is
it not effective public policy, but holding youths in adult prisons and
jails also has dangerous consequences for the young people themselves.
Compared to youths held in juvenile facilities, young people
incarcerated with adults are five times as likely to be sexually
assaulted by other inmates; are twice as likely to be beaten by staff;
are 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon; and are eight
times as likely to commit suicide.
What does work? Prevention is one key piece of the
puzzle. Research clearly shows the effectiveness of focused family
interventions in saving children and money. Some school-based
interventions, including bullying and drug abuse prevention programs,
and some sound mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of
America have also been proven effective. Above all, studies have shown
that comprehensive, collaborative and locally tailored strategies are
the most effective in preventing gang and youth violence. Existing state
legislation is more than adequate to comprehensively address youth
Increased federalization of juvenile crime and increasing the numbers of
juveniles transferred to the adult system are not the answer. The
responsibility of Congress to the young people of this nation and to all
citizens in ensuring public safety requires finding solutions proven to
be effective. Why are some policymakers insisting on approaches that
lack any evidence of actually deterring and reducing violent youth crime
and that punish without protection?
Why is the only thing our nation will guarantee every child a detention
or jail cell after they get into trouble?
When are we going to provide all children the healthy and fair start in
life that keeps them out of jail?
Marian Wright Edelman is CEO and founder of the
Children's Defense Fund
Marian W. Eldeman
22 June 2005