Sentencing Juveniles to Adult Facilities Fails Youths and Society

Article excerpt

Should juveniles be sentenced to adult correctional systems? To answer this question with a simple yes or no would be to make a dangerous generalization about the nature of juveniles, the nature of crime and the nature of juvenile justice programs. But the Child Welfare League of America believes that this nation has taken a dramatic step toward prosecuting far too many juveniles in the adult correctional system.

This country's laws recognize that juveniles are too young to drink alcohol, vote, engage in legal contracts and enter into marriage, all because they are still developing mentally and emotionally. Legislators created the juvenile justice system based on the belief that youths have much to learn, with the hope that early interventions might alter the path that youths pursue.

But many of today's politicians seem ready to abandon this approach. According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, between 1984 and 1994, arrests for juveniles charged with violent offenses jumped 78 percent. At least one criminologist described a generation of teen predators invading our neighborhoods, and many more predicted skyrocketing juvenile crime. In response, nearly every state passed legislation making it easier to try juveniles as adults. But the mayhem that was anticipated never arrived, and by the mid-1990s, teen crime rates had begun to plummet. It is difficult to find concrete evidence explaining the change, but most leaders in the juvenile justice field attribute it to a stronger economy, a decline in drug use and related gang activity, and an increase in prevention and positive youth development programs. The transfer laws, however, were never repealed, and today, most "decisions" to transfer juveniles to criminal or adult court come at the hands of a prosecutor or the legislature's mandatory guidelines rather than from a judge. As a result, each year, approximately 200,000 youths are sent directly to adult courts, the majority for property crimes and drug-related offenses.

As the leader of a youth advocacy organization, I find these developments quite troubling for the country's youths. But as a former district attorney who sought to keep the streets safe, I find these outcomes equally troubling for our communities. We should expect more from our justice system. Rather than lowering the likelihood of violent crime, this more severe approach increases the chances that youths will leave prison and continue to commit crimes. The solution is not to eliminate a layer of our justice system, but to provide the funding and support needed to make it work. Indeed, too few juvenile justice systems across the country have the capacity to hold juveniles accountable and provide the appropriate treatment these youths and their families need. If a 16-year-old is arrested and found guilty of burglary or robbery, then sent home for months while awaiting placement in a crowded juvenile facility, he and his peers quickly learn that there is no swift and appropriate consequence for their actions. …