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Common Sense Policy Proposal

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I’m constantly dumbfounded by the lack of common sense in American criminal justice policy. Today’s example: putting kids who are tried as adults in adult jails. The NY Times has an editorial today calling on Congress to end this practice. The problem, in short:

Children who are confined to adult jails are at greater risk of being raped, battered or pushed to suicide. They also are more likely to become violent criminals than children handled through the juvenile justice system. When Congress reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, it should press the states to end this barbaric practice.

This has become a bigger and bigger problem as states have classified ever larger numbers of kids as adults for the purposes of trial (and, it turns out, incarceration). Over 40 states allow prosecutors to try kids as young as 14 as adults. The more serious the crime alleged, the more likely the state is to be able to certify the child as an adult. Even when these kids are not convicted (or tried), they often spend up to 6 months in adult jails, and they often are irreparably harmed.

Congress will be reconsidering the Juvenile Justice Act and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 in the near future. The Times pushes Congress to end the practice…except for kids accused of rape or murder. I don’t think the Times goes far enough. As the editorial recognizes earlier, kids can be (and are) accused and not convicted, or not even tried. The harms to kids in these situations is just as great when they are accused of rape or murder as when they are accused of robbery or drug sale. Yes, kids accused of the more serious crimes may pose a greater risk, but not necessarily risks that require adult jails. Juvenile detention facilities can be equipped to ensure that potentially violent kids do not hurt themselves or others. Just because they are accused of more serious crimes does not mean we should give up on them and abandon them to the dangers of adult prisons — most particularly before conviction.

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