Under flawed criminal justice policy that is inconsistent with evidence-based research, trying and sentencing young children as adults occurs with alarming frequency and devastating results, according to a first policy research report on the subject released today by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
The report, “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” is a comprehensive look at how the nation treats pre-adolescent children, primarily those age 12 and under, who commit serious crimes. The report analyzes the available data with regard to the transfer of young children to adult criminal court, documents the extremely harsh and tragic consequences that follow when young children go into the adult criminal justice system, profiles practices in states with particularly severe outcomes for these young children, looks at international practices and offers policy recommendations
The report finds that more than half the states permit children age 12 and under to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences and placement in adult prisons.*
Four states stand out as providing the worst outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Professor Michele Deitch, the report’s lead author and an attorney who teaches juvenile justice policy at the LBJ School and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin, emphasized the national significance of the report and its findings.
“State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research. The adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids,” Deitch said. “Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults. Lawmakers must reconsider and reverse these punitive laws.”
Other key findings of “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System”:
- Every year, nearly 80 children age 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court. Between 1985 and 2004, 703 children age 12 and under, and 961 children age 13 were judicially transferred to adult court. The total number of young children in adult criminal court is much higher than this. The data do not include the number of children sent to the adult system through automatic transfer laws or laws allowing prosecutors to file cases directly in adult court.
- Many of these young children are being treated as adults for relatively minor offenses. There are almost as many youth treated as adults for property crimes as for crimes against persons. Determinations about when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult are marked by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities.
- On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. In these adult facilities, the youth face vastly higher risks of physical and sexual assault and suicide than they would face in juvenile facilities. The youngest children are at particular risk.
- The United States is severely out of step with international law and practice. Most countries–including those Western nations most similar to the United States, countries in the developing world, Islamic nations and even countries often considered to be human rights violators–repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences.
The report makes recommendations to national and state policymakers, including:
- Keep young children in the juvenile justice system. Access to the adult system must be restricted in several ways, including by raising the age for transfer, eliminating automatic-transfer laws and direct-file laws for young children and creating reverse-transfer laws allowing criminal court judges to return children to juvenile court at any stage of processing.
- Disallow mandatory sentencing of young children in adult criminal court. Mandatory sentencing laws intended to apply to adults should be more flexible when applied to children who are transferred to adult court. Judges should have the discretion to take account of their youth and amenability to rehabilitation as mitigating circumstances.
- Always provide parole opportunities for young children transferred to the adult criminal justice system, regardless of sentence length. Children as young as 7 could receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Florida and Pennsylvania.
- Young children in the adult criminal justice system should be housed in juvenile facilities. Young children must not be mixed with the adult criminal population. Any adult correctional facility holding juveniles should be required to comply with professional standards and should be subject to independent oversight of the children’s confinement conditions.
* The 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) where children as young as 7 can be treated as adults are: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. In addition, Kansas and Vermont set the age at 10, and Colorado, Missouri and Montana allow 12 year olds to be transferred to adult court.