In prisons all over America, juveniles are fighting for justice. Too often, children are thrown into the adult prison system where they have little chance of survival. Juveniles are harassed by adult inmates who are stronger and much more experienced. Juveniles should not be tried or sentenced according to adult law in Kentucky or any other state.
The eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” But when children as young as 10 are sentenced as adults and enter adult prisons, they are five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by guards, 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and eight times as likely to commit suicide compared to children in juvenile facilities, according to “10 Reasons Why Juveniles Should Not Be Tried or Sentenced as Adults” by legal analyst Barbe Stamps and David Berger.
Not only is this practice cruel, it defies our Constitution. The practice of trying and sentencing children as adults “has struck a nerve” with judges, jurors, lawyers, and legislators who ultimately believe that we as a nation are doing juveniles an injustice, according to Stamps. The Supreme Court has acknowledged – on multiple occasions – the fact that, compared to adults, teenagers are biologically wired to have more trouble refraining from acting immaturely and irresponsibly. It is the duty of our criminal justice system to protect and rehabilitate juveniles instead of pushing them into adult prisons. Our society’s laws already recognize the difference between children and adults. Kids can’t smoke, drink, or vote because they have not fully matured cognitively.
I know that people are frightened by the idea of a young super-predator – an unredeemable child who’s terrorized others through heinous crimes. I understand where this idea is coming from. I’ve studied various juvenile crimes: Christopher Pittman (age 12) shot his grandparents, Sam Mandez (14) was accused of murdering his elderly neighbor, and Nathan Ybanez (16) killed his mother. Often, though, the police and courts do not properly investigate the reason for a juvenile’s actions. For these teenagers, what at first sound like inexcusable crimes are not what they seem. Mandez was convicted of first-degree murder on slim evidence, without eyewitnesses or a confession. Ybanez was badly abused and neglected by his parents, and Pittman was prescribed antidepressants designed for adults that his defense claimed influenced his actions. Yet all three boys received life sentences in adult prisons.
With the right treatment and good care, most juvenile delinquents can be rehabilitated and given another chance at a normal life. This is because the human brain is not fully developed until a person’s early twenties, according to Stamps and Berger. The prefrontal cortex – the part controlling aggression, mental flexibility, and moral judgment – can be positively influenced with the help of skilled professionals. “Children who commit serious crimes still have the ability to change their lives for the better. It is now time for state and federal officials to take positive steps by enacting policies that seek to redeem children instead of throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives,” Berger writes. It is possible for children and teens to reform – if our legal system gives them the chance.
Kentucky is considerably ahead of other states in the campaign for juvenile justice. The flaws in the system aren’t small, but I believe the simplest solution that could be put into practice in a short time span is an amendment to current juvenile laws in Kentucky. The amendment should require that:
1. Juveniles are always tried in juvenile courts. Even if it’s an adult crime, there are no exceptions. Children do not have the competence to be tried in adult courts.
2. Before a juvenile is sentenced, the circumstances and motivation for the crime must be investigated thoroughly by police, defense attorneys, etc.
3. If the judge deems it appropriate, juveniles will be sent to a juvenile facility that provides rehabilitation. There will be no sentencing minors to adult prison systems.
Allowing children to be incarcerated in adult prisons isn’t justice. It defies the rights our founding fathers sought to protect with the Constitution, including the abolishment of cruel punishments. We have turned into a country where, under the law, kids can be sentenced to an almost unavoidable death in prison. Imagine your sisters and brothers, your cousins, your friends. Would you wish this fate on them? Are you truly okay with 10- and 11-year-olds getting assaulted by middle-aged drug dealers? This injustice is happening to children who could still turn their lives around, given the chance.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the January 2015 Teen Ink EBSCO POV Contest.