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Children tried as adults face danger, less chance for rehabilitation

Research shows that children prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system are more likely to reoffend than those held in the juvenile justice system. But thousands continue to be sent into adult courts every year in the Deep South. The SPLC is working to reform this practice.

Patrick* entered an Alabama prison at the age of 16.

In a little more than a year behind bars, he has witnessed more than 30 stabbings. He learned some lessons: Failing to turn over his property when a prisoner demands it puts him at risk of being stabbed, as does refusing a sexual overture. This thought hangs over him constantly.  

He is always on guard, ready to fight for his survival.

Patrick is one of about 1,200 children under the age of 18 who are being held in adult prisons across the country. The number is about 10,000 when local adult jails are included.

In Alabama, children as young as 14 can be charged and convicted as adults for any alleged offense. Neighboring Florida sends more children into adult criminal court – and into adult prisons – than any other state.

“[I]n adult court, they want to lock us up,” Sander A., a Florida youth, told Human Rights Watch for a recent report. “In juvenile court they want to help us make better choices.”

That, in a nutshell, is why children should not be tried as adults. The research is clear that children in the adult criminal justice system are more likely to reoffend than if they are held in the juvenile justice system. Still, thousands are sent into the adult system every year in the Deep South. 

This month, the Southern Poverty Law Center hosted or sponsored events in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida as part of National Youth Justice Awareness Month, a national campaign organized by the Campaign for Youth Justice to highlight the serious and devastating consequences of sending children into adult courts, jails and prisons.

“It is time to recognize the toll that misguided ‘tough-on-crime’ policies have taken on youths across this country,” said Jerri Katzerman, SPLC deputy legal director. “These policies have not only failed to make our communities safer, but have endangered children and needlessly derailed young lives.”

Research has shown that children in the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again than those convicted of similar offenses in juvenile court. They also are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile facilities.

During their time in adult lock-ups, prisoners such as Patrick often witness brutal inmate-on-inmate violence. And they are more likely to be victimized sexually.

Derrick* has been fending off sexual advances and assaults since arriving at a prison in Alabama at age 16. Many young inmates simply submit to older inmates because they know the guards probably won’t help them.

A number of professional organizations have opposed or condemned the practice of housing young people in adult lock-ups, including the American Jail Association, the American Correctional Association, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the National Association of Counties.

‘Lost in the system’

Research also has shown that children have a unique propensity for rehabilitation. The human brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s and the portion of the brain that governs rational decision-making is the last to develop. This means a child may engage in dangerous behavior without fully realizing the risks and consequences for themselves and others. 

“I was impulsive. I wouldn’t think about the consequences,” said Luke R., a Florida youth serving a prison sentence for robbery.

It’s a refrain heard over and over.

“I don’t do the same things I was doing,” said 22-year-old Thomas G., who is on probation for a crime he committed at age 17. “I think about things before I do them.”

After presiding over juvenile court for 14 years, one Florida judge summed up the young people this way: “I’ve been here long enough to understand that when someone is 16 and I ask them why they did it and they say ‘I don’t know,’ I believe them.”

Unfortunately, the adult system fails to recognize the potential for rehabilitation in children. This can be particularly damaging for children without a strong support system of family, friends and community.

“They really get lost in the system,” said Michelle Stephens, whose son was prosecuted as an adult and incarcerated in Florida five years ago after accepting a plea agreement. “And all their inmate peers become their family. They join gangs in prison. They’re worse off than they were before they went in prison. You think they were bad before they went in prison, now you’ve just put them with hardened, lifetime criminals.”

The distance between a youth and his family can be especially difficult. Langston T. is serving a three-year prison sentence almost four hours from his hometown. After nine months, he’s yet to have a visit from his family.

“It’s a long trip,” he said.

It’s just one of the harsh realities Langston and other youths in adult prisons must face.

“Adult prison? It ain’t a place to be,” he said. “It’s just breathing and eating. You just a number in here.”

Once a young person is out of prison, it can be difficult turning a life around with a felony record. Thomas G. has found this out after serving a three-year sentence.

“What I did when I was 16, that’s still following me and will follow me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I get a job, and they find out I was convicted of a felony, and they’ve got to let me go.”

He understands that people must be punished for wrongdoing but questions why one mistake must follow him forever.

“[D]on’t keep it held over me for the rest of my life,” he said.


*Name changed to protect his identity. 

The quotes and stories of Sander A., Luke R., Thomas G., and Langston T. are from Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its “Direct File” Statute, a Human Rights Watch report released in April 2014.