'These Are Our Children'

When young people commit offenses, adults must respond—but too often our response to troubled youth, in the form of local and state juvenile justice systems, does much more harm than good.

One big problem: About 200,000 youth are prosecuted as adults each year, most for nonviolent offenses. Some of them are kids like Jay, a 14-year-old who was held in an adult jail to await trial. Too young to be admitted to the jail’s GED course, Jay spent 15 months locked up without any education or programs. After he was finally found not guilty, his grandmother struggled to get him into a school where he could make up for lost time and heal from the trauma of being jailed with adults.

Children who spend time in adult prisons and jails are at much higher risk for assault, abuse, and suicide. They don’t get the services they need, and they are more likely to re-offend—sooner, more often, and more violently—than youth who stay in the juvenile system.

We are also wrong to spend so much money and effort incarcerating young people in juvenile prisons or “training schools”—again, often for nonviolent offenses. My son was one of them. He was not a danger to the public, but was sent to a youth prison, where he was beaten by gang members and subjected to abuse and harassment by guards. Facilities like that one, which costs state taxpayers more than $102,000 per child per year, are abysmal failures, with high recidivism rates. Imprisoning kids to “teach them a lesson” is an almost sure-fire way of teaching them how to be more criminal.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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