Charging Juvenile Offenders as Adults

Posted by Laurie Spivey

Aug 16, 2016 12:30:00 PM

What price do we pay by charging youths as adults?

Sometimes young people do terrible things. Things that have lasting consequences. Things that require a swift response. Like two Wisconsin girls who were 12 when they were arrested on suspicion of stabbing a classmate 19 times. Though a decision about charging these young people as adults has yet to be made, in the state of Wisconsin, a child as young as 10 can be tried as an adult. Acts like these are terrible and heartbreaking and it leaves lawmakers, court personnel and the general public feeling like they have to take action. Is charging juvenile offenders as adults really the best answer?

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The costs of charging juvenile offenders as adults

The Equal Justice Initiative reports that some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America. These children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities and face increased risk of suicide.

Additionally, juveniles who witness violence during incarceration, which is more likely in adult facilities, are less likely to be deterred from future crime. And what about the long-term consequences? The news doesn’t get any better.

Juveniles whose cases were seen in criminal court were more likely to reoffend and to reoffend sooner than matched samples of juveniles whose cases were seen in juvenile court. For example, young people tried and convicted as adults were found to be 32 percent more likely to commit another crime than juveniles tried for similar crimes in the juvenile-justice system. 

The rationale

So, why do we do it? Why do we charge kids as adults if we have evidence that it doesn’t protect society, that on the contrary it has serious negative consequences? I have a few good guesses. I think we do it because not enough of us understand the perils. Judges run on the platform that they will be “tough on crime,” and popular opinion often dictates, in some states more than others, that the way to “get tough” is to fill up our jails. I also think it happens sometimes because we lack resources or because we don’t have an understanding of why the things we have tried haven’t helped these youth. Lastly, I think we go for it because we don’t spend enough time talking about the alternatives to charging youth as adults.

The alternatives

Evidence-based treatments (EBTs) for young offenders give us options. Most provide great long-term cost savings. In my years working with Multisystemic Therapy (MST), I have seen how effective it is, and there are many randomized and independent trials that back this up. Still, MST is not the only EBT. To find others, check out Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, an organization that operates independently of any treatment model, and provides a registry and ranking of evidence-based youth programs. Only MST and Life Skills Training (LST) received its top Model Plus rating.

Some states have seen the light

Adolescent brains are not fully developed. Young people think differently than grown-ups, react differently and often don’t consider the consequences of their actions. Throwing them into the debilitating, demoralizing and devastating cauldron of the adult prisons is arguably criminal. 

Some states have recognized that. In the last few years, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut have raised the age that a young person is tried in adult court to 18. There are “raise the age” movements in New York, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Find out what the age is in your state when adolescents are thrown into the adult court system—and adult prisons. Get on the Blueprints website, and look at the options. Consider contacting one or more EBT programs to learn about bringing them to your area. 

We can no longer stand for solutions that don’t work and put our young people and communities at greater risk. Let’s raise the awareness about the evidence-based alternatives to charging young people as adults. Their lives will benefit. Our society will be better and safer. It’s the right thing to do.

Laurie Spivey is an MST Expert at MST Services.

To learn more about what makes MST an effective intervention for juvenile offenders, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform