The American juvenile justice system was founded over a century ago on the basic (and correct) premise that children are different from adults and that dealing with crimes committed by them requires a different set of tools. Yet it seems that over time, the system has morphed into something never intended: one that actually punishes children more harshly than it would adults in similar situations – consider for example the fact that 95 percent of youth tried in adult courts have committed nonviolent offenses.
In the 1980’s, America, swept up in political scare tactics, began a three-decade long journey of “tough on crime” policies. Fueled by the fear and anger instigated by the media and political figures, the country began to rely heavily on incarceration and severe punishment as the answer to almost all social ills. Combined with the hysteria created by a group of academics, warning of the coming of a generation of“super predators” – children who were brutal, impulsive, remorseless, who would “pack guns instead of lunches” – these tactics led to states across the country abandoning the initial juvenile justice model and turning to harsher and harsher punishments for kids.
Many states lowered the age at which children could be tried as adults as well as taking away judicial discretion and implementing laws that made it mandatory to transfer youth who committed a wide range of crimes from juvenile court to adult court. In many states, there is no minimum age at which a child can be considered an adult in the eyes of the law.
In time, the fallacy of the “super predator” theory became obvious and the idea was repudiated by those who originally conceived of it, and the tide began to turn. In 2005, the Supreme Court outlawed the penalty of death for those who committed their crimes under the age of 18, ruling that such punishment violated the Constitution’s guaranteed protection against “cruel and unusual punishment”. Many states have passed laws to limit prosecution or housing of youth as adults. Based on brain science showing the adolescent brain is not fully developed to support completely rational, independent and mature decision-making, the Court in 2012 outlawed the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
However, the consequences of decades of treating youth as adults still haunt us. Each year, more than 250,000 children in the United States are tried, prosecuted, or incarcerated as adults – and these youth are disproportionately youth of color. But as advocacy 101 teaches us, each challenge presents an opportunity for change, and we stand at a very opportune moment.
In recent years, many who in the past argued for being “tough on crime” have changed their tune and are calling for reform of the entire system of justice in America. Much of this change in perspective has to do with the fact that it no longer makes fiscal sense to lock up so many people for such lengthy periods. But whatever the cause, today there is an opportunity to advance on all fronts of criminal justice and youth justice reform. And there are some great examples of timely advocacy on this issue.
In the last two years for example, California has passed two laws that recognize the distinction between youth and adults when it comes to criminal culpability. Propelled by research showing brain development for youth and young adults, in 2013 legislators and advocates passed SB 260, giving those who committed their crimes under the age of 18 a chance at early parole by demonstrating remorse and rehabilitation. Building on the momentum and supported by data that the brain continues to develop well into early adulthood, in 2015 advocates expanded their victory and helped pass SB 261, extending the provisions of SB 260 to those who committed their crime before the age of 23. Taken together, these two bills could greatly impact the future of nearly 17,000 people who were sentenced to lengthy terms for crimes they committed before turning 23.
These victories are huge steps forward not only for the statewide impact they can have, but also for offering advocates from across the country models for change. For ten years the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) has helped leverage local and state reforms by ensuring a space for experts and advocates nationwide to connect, learn from, and support one another. Its members (including my own organization) endorse nine principles of youth justice reform -- including Keeping Youth out of Adult Court, Jails, and Prisons. Given the many victories in ensuring the treatment of “kids as kids” in the last decade, along with current attention being paid to America’s broken system of justice, it is more important than ever to make sure our efforts continue. Whether you are an expert, an advocate, a volunteer or a donor, there is a vital role you can play to ensure the protection and support of all of our children. Go here to learn more about how you can support this movement.
America has a window of time in which leaders from all sides of the political isle are paying close attention to this issue. We should take advantage of this opportunity but we must also be honest in our advocacy and build a youth justice system that not only recognizes the special needs of children, but also deals with the racial biases that exist at every step along the way. Only then can we have a system that is truly fair. This is our chance to help this country meet the promise of justice and equality upon which it was founded.