Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, who faces a recall effort over her decision to try a 17-year old as a juvenile, speaks during a press conference in Oakland, California, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

(Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

The GOP Is Politicizing Juvenile Crime for Political Gain

From Oakland to Minneapolis, Republican legislators continue to push for juvenile cases to be moved to adult courts, jeopardizing much-needed reform.

The GOP’s criminal justice platform in a few words: attack prosecutors for treating kids like kids.

Over the past several years, reform-minded prosecutors like Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price and Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty have been elected on platforms that involve a commitment to not charge juveniles in adult court. This is a simple promise that has and will continue to deliver equitable justice without exception to children. However, the implementation of this commitment has been met with intense backlash, resulting in attempts from the far right to undermine the discretion of reform-minded prosecutors and remove them from office.

In Oakland, District Attorney Price’s decision to charge a 17-year-old in juvenile court was leaked by an adversarial media outlet. Soon after, this decision became fuel for the recall facing Price, bolstered by the same MAGA messaging on crime we see catching fire across the country. In Minneapolis, County Attorney Mary Moriarty charged a 15-year-old in juvenile court, resulting in sustained requests from Republican state officials to transfer the case to the state attorney general’s office. As major cities across the country have elected reform-minded prosecutors, Republican lawmakers have attacked and disparaged them at the great cost of Black communities, who are disproportionately impacted by tough-on-crime prosecutorial practices.

For our systems to be consistent, to be fair, and to reflect science, we have to have prosecutors willing to stand firm in their commitments to treat kids like kids.

The adultification” of Black kids in our criminal legal system is no secret. Black youth comprise 47.3% of adult court transfers, while only making up 14% of the youth population. The GOP’s continual pressure to charge kids as adults is not just an attack on criminal legal reform, it is a coordinated attack on justice for Black children. Children in adult jails are more likely to suffer permanent trauma and are five times more likely to die by suicide than children held in juvenile detention centers. We know that incarcerating children with adults also deprives them of access to essential programs and services that are fundamental to successful reentry into their communities. This can not be about politics, it has to be about delivering appropriate justice that considers age-appropriate sentencing.

The U.S. Supreme Court appropriately recognizes that youth are different from adults. The Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons— where the court held that executing minors under the death penalty is unconstitutional—confirmed what science has shown to be irrefutably true: The adolescent brain is not fully developed until about age 25. Therefore, youth cannot be viewed “as morally culpable as adults” in their conduct.

While we expect Republicans to vacate moral grounds to accomplish their electoral priorities, it has been unfortunate to see centrist Democrats adopt this playbook. In Minneapolis, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz pushed back on a ruling from County Attorney Moriarty in the face of pressure from the state GOP. In Oakland, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell attacked District Attorney Price by peddling a manufactured crime wave narrative. Centrist Democrats are allowing the GOP to mandate how we talk about crime, how we address public safety, and how to deliver equitable justice for juveniles.

We know that many cases involving juvenile defendants carry profound grief, great consequences for communities, and are rightfully emotionally charged. Unshockingly, the GOP has manipulated this grief as a talking point to unseat prosecutors. The recall facing District Attorney Price, for example, has platformed directly affected parents, and pushed their stories to support the recall. This strategy not only belittles the true testimony of these cases, but also politicizes the grief of impacted families and communities.

For our systems to be consistent, to be fair, and to reflect science, we have to have prosecutors willing to stand firm in their commitments to treat kids like kids. While the GOP continues to manipulate cases involving Black children for political gain, we have to be aware of the politics they are playing. We need to understand that Republicans do not care about fairness, they care about disparaging the progressive movement for justice.

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