As many as 150,000 children are sent to adult jails in this country every year — often in connection with nonviolent offenses or arrests that do not lead to conviction. That places them at risk of being raped or battered and increases the chance they will end up as career criminals.
To fix this problem, Congress needs to properly reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974, under which states agreed to humanize juvenile justice policies in exchange for more federal aid. This act was largely bypassed in the 1990s when unfounded fears of an adolescent crime wave reached hysterical levels.
When it reauthorizes the law — it is already three years late — Congress should make it illegal for states to place children in adult prisons, perhaps with the exception of truly heinous criminals.
The House has yet to introduce a new bill; in the Senate, an updated version has yet to be voted out of the Judiciary Committee. The Senate bill is less than ideal, but it does encourage the states to de-emphasize the practice of detaining children in adult jails before trial and requires them to better protect young people who end up there. Several states have begun to reform their systems: housing young people in juvenile facilities — where they are better protected and can get mental health treatment — even if they have been convicted in adult courts. The current version of the law threatens states with loss of federal aid if they make that decision. The Senate bill would do away with that language.
The bill also would require states to phase out policies under which children are detained in either juvenile or adult facilities for offenses like violating curfew or smoking. These children should be dealt with through community-based counseling or family intervention programs, which are better for the child and for taxpayers.
In addition, the bill increases financing for mentoring, drug treatment, mental health care and other programs that have been shown to keep children out of custody in the first place. And it would require states to closely monitor — and address — racial inequities in their system. Studies show that black and Hispanic children get harsher treatment at all levels of the juvenile justice system than white children.
The Senate bill is not perfect. But it represents a welcome step away from the cruel and self-defeating policies that subject children to irreparable harm at the hands of the state and puts them on a path that too often leads to a lifetime spent behind bars.