Major Flaws in Minor Incarceration
Every year, 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults. In 23 states, seven-year-olds can be prosecuted and tried in adult courts and tonight alone an estimated 10,000 children will be held in adult facilities, with more than three quarters of them awaiting trial. Even more troubling, African-American youth are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence for identical crimes; for Latino youth that number is four times greater than for white children. These statistics, provided by the Campaign for Youth Justice, are a frightening wake-up call, which reminds us of the startling number of children ill served by the adult criminal justice system.
A new report by the ACLU and Humans Rights Watch entitled “Growing Up Locked Down” chronicles these issues and many more pertaining to youth in prison. According to the report, juveniles in adult prisons are often subject to solitary confinement, frequently held in cells for 23 hours a day with no natural light or human contact. Whereas solitary confinement might be used as a form of punishment for adult prisoners, the Washington Post explains that “some of the juveniles were put in solitary to protect them from being preyed on by older inmates.” According the ACLU, these children are deprived of educational opportunities and often develop serious mental health issues. More startling, the oppressive conditions these children face often lead the youth to self-harm or suicide.
The report by the ACLU came just days before the first annual Justice for Youth Summit, hosted by the Campaign for Youth Justice and the School of Public Affairs Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University. Bringing together mothers of incarcerated youth, youth who served time in adult facilities, non-profit workers, legal experts and engaged students, this summit served as a call to action, mobilizing a diverse set of stakeholders in an important campaign to reduce the number of youth in prison.
As the Reform Jewish Community, we learn from our texts and leaders that it is our responsibility to actively pursue justice. It is our duty to advocate on behalf of those youth ill served and to promote a healthier approach to youth justice. In July, we praised the Supreme Court’s decision that ended life sentences for juveniles with no chance for parole. As we observe National Youth Justice Awareness Month, we should question what work has yet to be done to improve the conditions for incarcerated youth. We must work to ensure that the justice system is focused on rehabilitation and that it prepares youth to return home to make meaningful contributions to their societies.
Image courtesy of Richard Ross