Prison is No Place to Grow Up: Why Every State Must Enact Juvenile Justice Reforms

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David ChuraMost of us know at least a few young teens -- 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds. A son or daughter.  A niece or nephew.  A neighbor or a friend’s grandchild. We see them around, waiting for the school bus, surfing the sidewalk on a skate board, hanging out at the mall. Despite what they insist, teens are only on the cusp of adulthood, and most of us will do whatever we can to help them make it in the world.

Until, that is, one of those youths gets arrested. Then all that good will disappears. At least that’s the case in over half the states that have yet to change their laws prosecuting young teenagers (under the age of 18) as adults and, if convicted, sending them to adult correctional facilities.  Suddenly that young person becomes an exile to all the protections and decencies that communities work hard to provide their children, and she or he enters a world that is blind to the needs and vulnerabilities of every developing adolescent. (This disenfranchisement is made starkly clear by the fact that in some states the parents of those teens are not notified when their children are arrested.) There is nothing nice about a kid in an adult prison or jail—nothing any of us would wish on the young teens that we know.

There are lots of numbers to tell us why these laws are wrong: about 250,000 juvenile offenders are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are placed in adult jails and prisons each year. Ninety-five percent of minors tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders.

Even more shocking, the suicide rate for youth under 18 in adult facilities is eight times that of kids in juvenile settings. According to a report by the Campaign for Youth Justice, inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. These grim statistics alone should have all caring adults voicing support for the efforts of child advocacy groups working to amend the laws in the remaining states that treat minors as adults in the criminal justice system.

But even if kids serving time in an adult facility somehow manage to keep themselves physically and sexually safe, the world of adult prison will still harm and harden them. While teaching high school students locked up in an adult correctional facility I saw what prison culture does to teenagers. The constant threat of violence and intimidation; the noise, foul smells and unhealthy food; the chaos and overcrowding; the isolation from family and positive role models; the lack of mental health services. All these factors create an environment that can, and does damage the sturdiest of adults. What kind of harm, then, do those conditions have on a young person still developing physically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically and spiritually?

But shouldn’t these kids be held responsible for breaking the law? Yes. That is exactly why those who support changing these laws want to keep younger teens in the juvenile justice system. The adult prison system, the way it is now structured, is more about retribution than rehabilitation. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to help children change behavior and provides them with vital services such as school and substance abuse treatment which support that change. When we lock up minors in adult prisons the inevitable focus of incarceration becomes that of survival and of bitter resentment and retaliation for mistreatment by the criminal justice system. The research supports that conclusion. Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

Think of all the teenagers you know or see around you. What wouldn’t you do to help them, to point them in the right direction, to shield them from harm? Think of all the benefits we heap on our children, the advantages we say they all should, must have. Why does all that disappear when a kid makes a mistake and gets arrested? Why suddenly are they any less deserving of our personal and national compassion? The least any of us can do is to support those advocacy groups working for juvenile justice reform and to urge legislators to support laws that save young offenders from growing up in adult prisons.

David Chura is the author of “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup” which received a 2010 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. He has worked with at-risk teenagers for the past 40 years. For 26 of those years, he taught English and creative writing in community based alternative schools and in a county penitentiary. His writings have appeared in the New York Times as well as other scholarly and literary journals. Visit his website at www.kidsinthesystem.wordpress.com