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Incarcerating Youth - An American Injustice


January 29, 2012 |

We teach our youth the “golden rules:” To treat others the way they would like be treated, to share, to tell the truth and to forgive. For the 2,600 people serving a life without parole sentence in a U.S. Adult prison for crimes they committed while under age 18, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, these lessons no longer apply.

These individuals have already been deemed as liabilities who are dangerous because they failed to adhere to society’s virtues, and they must serve their sentence accordingly. But, in actuality, it is the American society who has failed them.

Eva McEnrue

The U.S. System of youth incarceration is an injustice that is severely out-of-step with international law, which rejects the practice of trying adolescents as adults and administering long sentences. Incarcerating young people is not only costly; it is unfair and ineffective in prohibiting crime.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, young people who are transferred from the juvenile justice system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a crime than those kept within the juvenile court system.

This isn’t surprising considering the limited services, lack of positive role models and prevalence of violence within adult facilities.

Adult facilities fail to provide youth with the educational and rehabilitative services needed at their stage of development. Without the suitable educational merits or vocational training, youth offenders who are released back into their communities are even less capable of becoming employed and achieving economic success.

Adult facilities also place youth in immense danger of becoming sexual victims.

“More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse,” the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported.

And with juveniles comprising only one percent of adult jail inmates, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report that 13 percent of all inmate-on-inmate sexual violence victims were youth under the age of 18 is truly sickening.

Adult facilities fail to keep youth safe from violence as well, and most often young people are segregated into isolation or solitary confinement, which regularly consists of being locked in small cells with no natural light for 23 hours a day, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. These conditions can lead to paranoia, anxiety, mental disorders and increased risk of suicide.

The grim reality is that youths detained in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those housed in juvenile detention facilities.

Is this justice? Should a young person’s future be determined by a choice he or she made before their cognitive abilities fully developed? Were these individuals simply born monsters or did they make an adolescent mistake due to their lack of maturity?

In 1982, a jury sentenced Kevin Stanford to death for a crime he committed when he was only 17 years old. Stanford received weak representation at his trial. No attempt was made to challenge damaging testimony or to pursue the two witnesses who identified another individual being at the murder scene. Another key piece of evidence — Stanford’s social history — was also never presented to the jury.

The all-white jury that convicted the African-American teenager was never informed of his life filled with neglect, maltreatment and violence, as well as sexual, physical and mental abuse.

The fact is that youth offenders, like Stanford, often grow up in a home that fails to teach society’s “golden rules.” Youth offenders are often raised in impoverished environments and experience a combination of neglect, violence, poverty and physical, sexual or psychological abuse. These conditions, the International Justice Project reports, decrease one’s ability to make choices rationally.

Trying youths as adults and administering long sentences is a pervasive and profound issue shaping communities because of the nature of power. It is unfair for society to place immense punishment on an individual who lacks control of their living conditions, impulses, emotions, judgments and identity.

When prosecuting young people as adults, emphasis should not be placed merely on the facts of the crime. We must also examine and present the individual’s social history.

Ultimately, we have all already failed these youth offenders by failing to intervene in the detrimental, often horrific, circumstances of their life. We cannot fail them again when it matters most — deciding their future.

Eva McEnrue is a journalism senior and the Kernel’s opinion editor. Email

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