A recently released study by the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington found that as many as 200,000 youth are prosecuted for crimes every year, and that at least 40 states allow or require the jailing of youth in adult facilities before they go to court. The study, “The Consequences Aren’t Minor: The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform,” also found that the majority of youth who are entering the adult courts are there for minor and nonviolent offenses. Among some of the highlighted cases were those of a 17-year-old girl who had stolen a neighbor’s bicycle and was sentenced to 75 days in an adult jail, and one in which a 17-year-old boy who was arrested for “armed robbery” after stealing a classmate’s gym clothes spent several weeks in an adult facility. In cases like these, the offending youth will have criminal convictions that will be on their records indefinitely and that will affect them when they are searching for a job or applying to college.
Some of these youth end up in the adult court system because they cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent them. Youth are often assigned inadequate legal counsel as well. For example, in Virginia, court-appointed attorneys assigned to provide counsel to youth are not required to have any criminal defense training and are paid a fee of $120, the lowest rate in the country.
Another problem with this practice is that prisons are not equipped to handle juvenile offenders. In one documented case, a youth was placed in a cell with a convicted child molester. But most of the time, prisons are forced to keep youth in isolated corridors to avoid placing them in contact with adult offenders. Some times, however, the isolation can result in depression and suicide.
Finally, it is widely believed that prisons tend to breed more criminals. So the youth entering the system at an early age will be more likely to continue reoffending throughout their lives.
Thankfully, the problem is not going unnoticed; officials in some states are beginning to draft legislation that would prevent juveniles from being placed in the adult prison system. Such states as California, Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have already begun implementing procedures to guarantee that juvenile offenders are housed separately from adults. Let’s hope other states will follow their example.