You know the criminal justice situation in the US is bad when you open the morning paper and read this paragraph as the lede in a front-section article (that happens to be written by Adam Liptak):
In December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.
Ah, the US. First on the moon and first in incarceration.
In recent years, and especially since the Supreme Court held, in Roper v. Simmons, that the United States cannot execute people who were minors at the time of the commission of the crime, awareness and concern has been growing about the way minors are treated in our criminal justice system. Last year, over 200,000 minors ended up in the adult criminal justice system. According to the Christian Science Monitor (linked last sentence), that’s an increase of over 200% since the 1990s, when states first began passing laws allowing them to try juveniles as adults.
There seem to me to be a number of problems with such a system (putting aside, even, the juveniles who are saddled with life sentences). But the most central one is this: this seems like the clearest way to make sure that we keep a class of people is trapped in the criminal justice system for their entire lives. Again, not counting the kids who get life sentences, sentencing a child as an adult means that he or she serves his/her sentence in an adult prison. Adult prisons are tough places. Kids often don’t get to finish their high school educations while incarcerated. They are often exposed to drugs and violence while incarcerated. Juvenile detention facilities aren’t necessarily such happy places either, but at least they are better equipped to address the special needs of teenagers, and to at least try to make sure that the kids reenter their communities smoothly. Whereas most state adult criminal justice systems couldn’t care less about reentry, therefore creating the prisons’ revolving doors.
How long will we remain the only country not to realize that we are doing more harm than good by treating juvenile offenders with as little humanity as we treat adults?