juvenile justice beyond bars

Juvenile justice: harsh sentencing

By Miah Allen

Sentencing juveniles to prison has never been proven to be effective, yet more than 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, and incarcerated in the U.S. Not only are they incarcerated, but they are often tried as adults.

An overwhelming number of these children who enter the adult court aren’t there for seriously violent crimes, but their harsh sentences postulate otherwise. The most common juvenile crimes are vandalism and graffiti charges, shoplifting, and simple
assault (usually fighting incidents).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are 34 percent more likely than youth retained in the juvenile system to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes. Black juveniles are more likely than white juveniles to be incarcerated in correctional facilities rather than in a psychiatric facility, despite studies reporting that they scored similarly on the child behavior checklist.

Due to institutional bias and racial bias, black youth are more prone to formal processing procedures because their families aren’t able to comply with agency policies for one or both parents to be present at adjudication hearings. The institutions deem the parental supervision of black youth as insufficient, resulting in children being placed under state control, or in other words, sentenced to jail or prison.

In 1988, Congress amended the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, requiring states receive funding from Title II Part B Formula Grants. This means states could lose up to 25 percent of their State Formula Block funding if there aren’t
enough juveniles locked away. Thus, there is an incentive to jail juveniles and access this funding.

It costs states $148,767 per juvenile annually, to incarcerate a child. In order for states to receive funding, they must be in compliance with four core requirements including, de-institutionalization of status offenders, separation of juveniles from adult inmates, removal of juveniles from adult jails and lockups, and addressing racial and ethnic disparities. Although not all juvenile detentions meet core requirements.

Today, there are 39 states where youth are charged as adults and risk being held in
adult jail while awaiting trial. Up until April 2017, New York and North Carolina tried 16-and 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the crime they committed and them not being 18 years of age. “Adult time for adult crime,” has often been used as an excuse or reason to sentence youth to harsh sentences. Regardless of how much information we have on how children’s brains develop, juvenile children in detention don’t receive the guidance and support they need to grow and flourish. This is due to lack of resources and funding, misuse of funds, and systematic issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that youth are less blameworthy than adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation, yet they are still put at risk by being prosecuted as adults. Juvenile life without parole is something that has been debated for several years. Although 23 states have banned juvenile life sentencing without parole, other states still sentence youth to prison for life without parole simply because they have the power to do so. Reformers have pushed for more rehabilitation instead of punishments for youth, knowing that children need more guidance. Punishment has been the go-to stance for our nation’s court systems.

Leigha Wells, mental health counselor in West Chester, Pa., has been active in the juvenile reform system, providing counseling services to children who have served time. Wells grew up in foster homes and troubled group homes, but felt that she was one of
the lucky ones, having avoided jail time. She feels she can best relate to children growing up in the system because she constantly found herself in bad scenarios and making bad decisions because she didn’t have guidance and parents to watch over her. In addition to serving children who’ve served time, Wells works with troubled youth by helping them find activities for them to join so that they spend less time at their troubled home or out in the streets. She helps them find hobbies and interests to distract them
from their daily issues and provides academic help to these children as well.

“I know what it's like for these children to feel like they have nobody in their corner,” Wells said, “Sure they may have a parent at home, but that parent is most likely stressed and not present because they’re focused on financial problems. This results in not meeting the child’s needs until it's too late.”

Wells is early in her attempt to help change the juvenile system and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. She emphasizes how important it is for a child to have a strong support system to succeed in life.

“I know I can’t save every child out there, but I will help as many as I can,” Wells said. “We can’t allow the system to break children down and swallow them. If you look at the majority of the prison population, they faced time as a child or had a troubled youth, and together we can change that.”

Children Don't Benefit From Serving Time

Whether or not children should serve time has been debated for many years. The juvenile justice system is failing. The criminal system needs to redevelop into a more effective system that focuses on having resources available to children instead of punishing them.

Produced and Edited by Miah Allen


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