Treat Youth as Youth
The New York Times published an editorial today ("12 and In Prison") challenging the practice of sentencing children as young as twelve in adult court.
Referring to Justice Kennedy's 2005 majority opinion that children are ineligible for sentences of death, the editorial praises the Supreme Court judge for drawing on "compassion, common sense and the science of the youthful brain when he wrote that it was morally wrong to equate the offenses of emotionally undeveloped adolescents with the offenses of fully formed adults." Nevertheless, today's editorial laments, states across the nation continue "to mete out barbaric treatment — including life sentences — to children whose cases should rightly be handled through the juvenile courts."
In today's editorial, the New York Times urges Congress to amend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (up for reauthorization this year) to require states to end abusive practices like juvenile life sentences and housing youth in adult prisons.
Eighty children ages 13 and under are waived to the adult courts each year. In California, children as young as 14 receive adult sentences. According to a new report by the Sentencing Project (PDF), of the 6,807 individuals serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, over a third are incarcerated in California, 239 of whom received sentences of life without parole. Black youth, the study referenced in the Times editorial notes (PDF), are more than twenty times as likely to receive a sentence of life without parole than white youth.
State Senator Yee introduced legislation this year to review the cases of juveniles sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison and provide opportunities to earn a reduced sentence. In late June, SB 399 failed to pass the Assembly Public Safety committee, but the bill is due to go up for reconsideration. Learn how you can support SB 399 here.
Unlike some states, California generally bars the housing of youth in adult prisons. Instead, youth sentenced as adults are sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice until they turn 18, at which point they are transferred to adult prisons. But Division of Juvenile Justice facilities—far from home, weak on programming, and prison-like by design—pose little contrast to adult prisons. As of last December, three children ages 13 and under and 11 children of just 14 years of age were confined to California's decades-old youth prison system.
Indeed, the problem is not only that too many young people are sentenced to a failed adult prison system, but that the punitive logic of the adult system threatens to overtake the rehabilitative principles guiding the juvenile justice system. Early this month, the California Supreme Court disregarded the fact that young people have no right to a jury trial and that adolescent brains are far from fully developed when it ruled that certain offenses adjudicated in juvenile court can qualify as "strikes" under California's Three Strikes Law.
We agree with the New York Times that young people's cases should be "handled through the juvenile courts." We also urge Congress to use its legislative powers to push state juvenile justice systems to not only act separately from the adult courts, but also attend to the distinct needs of young people.