Protecting children is fundamental. Even youth who commit serious crimes deserve a chance at rehabilitation. The U.S. Supreme Court, the Centers for Disease Control and mental health experts stress the need for children, with their still-developing brains, impulsive nature, and increased vulnerability to negative influences, to be treated differently. Adult jails and prisons have insufficient educational opportunities, psychiatric services, vocational training, and other essential services in order to meet the needs of still developing youth. Youth are also at an increased risk for sexual assault and suicide while in adult criminal justice facilities. That’s without mentioning the barriers to successfully reentering society like limited access to education, employment, housing, and democratic participation. Furthermore, studies overwhelmingly have shown that youth who do adult time are much more likely to reoffend, in comparison to those youth who are housed in the juvenile justice system or in their home communities. When youth are held accountable within a system that is age-appropriate and rehabilitative, research shows they generally outgrow their criminal behavior and become participating members of society. Are we really willing to define a teenager by his/her worst act and invest tens of thousands of dollars in making them a better criminal?
Changes to a more balanced and evidence-based justice system are being made throughout the country. In CFYJ’s 2013 State Trends report, we highlight the 23 states that have enacted 40 pieces of legislation. Currently, a new report by our partners DC Lawyers for Youth and us, Capital City Correction, examines the most current data on DC youth housed in the DC jail. The report shows the need to understand all factors of a kid, not just his/her charge. For example, in DC, youth tried as adults are not just any type of children: they are the marginalized. Impoverished neighborhoods have a disproportionally high number of youth tried as adults. Additionally, from 2007-2012, 97% of youth held at the DC Correctional Treatment Facility were African American, from these impoverished neighborhoods. Speaking recently in DC, Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, challenges society to, “be in awe at what the poor have to deal with, not judgmental about how they deal with it.”