Progress in Youth Justice — But Work Remains

By Noel Tieszen

The effort to end prosecution of youth in the adult justice system is gaining traction. Last week, the Campaign for Youth Justice released a report, Raising the Bar: State Trends in Keeping Youth Out of Adult Courts (2015-2017), which provides some encouraging news. Published to coincide with Youth Justice Action Month, the report includes important examples of success in this nationwide effort. For instance, four more states have prohibited automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and five states have given judges (rather than prosecutors or legislators) the power to choose whether youth will be tried in family or adult courts. Other states have passed laws that protect youth from adult prisoners, limit entry to the adult system, or facilitate return from the adult system to the juvenile courts.

Despite the promise of these trends, they are insufficient to fully protect the rights and safety of youth in the justice system.. Even in states where judges maintain discretion, too many young people are treated like adults. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, laws in several states allow 13-year-olds to be transferred to the adult system; in some states, children as young as 10 can be transferred.

A 2017 study of juvenile cases tried in Florida’s adult courts found evidence of racial bias in sentencing. Black youth in Florida’s adult courts were more than 2.3 times as likely as White youth to be sentenced to jail rather than community supervision and 1.7 times as likely to be sentenced to prison. They also received 7.8 percent longer sentences than their White peers. Hispanic youth were almost 1.4 times as likely as White youth to be sentenced to jail time.

After sentencing, many youth prosecuted as adults face another threat to their safety: incarceration with adults. As of the end of 2015, almost 1,000 youth age 17 or below were being held in adult prisons.

Basic protections are close at hand. The U.S. House and Senate both passed bills to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which would add several new protections. In particular, reauthorization would begin to address overrepresentation of youth of color in the justice system. For youth housed in adult prisons, both bills would prohibit any contact with adult inmates, including through sight or sound. This would protect youth from physical harm, as well as threats, psychological abuse, or intimidation from older inmates.

As we recognize Youth Justice Action Month, CLASP calls on Congress to take action now by reconciling and passing JJDPA. But reauthorization is just the first step. The true solution is to move away from a law and order approach to public policy  that pushes youth (especially youth of color) out of school and into the justice system in the first place. Instead, our nation must turn toward an investment framework that removes institutional barriers to success and increases youth opportunities in education, employment, and service.