Childhood Interrupted: Incarcerating Youth in Adult Prisons

Posted by Sue Dee

Oct 19, 2016 12:26:50 PM

Film highlights the dangers of incarcerating youth with adults 

Imagine your 17-year-old daughter got in a school fight with a 16-year-old classmate. Hair pulling, scratching. No weapons involved. What do you think is the appropriate consequence for such behavior? Suspension from school? Grounded? Not allowed to attend the prom or other school activities? What about community service? Restitution? Probation? Think that may be going too far for a youthful mistake? Well, depending on the state you live in, that 17-year-old could be charged with felony child abuse and incarcerated in an adult correctional facility. As a parent, you would have no control over that process.

In the ’90s, there was a growing fear of rising juvenile crime and the concept of "super-predators" that never came to be. The fear led many states to create laws that made it much easier for juveniles to be tried and incarcerated in the adult system. In some states, a 16-year-old is automatically charged as an adult, and in others, a 10-year-old could be prosecuted as one. The Campaign for Youth Justice released a video, Childhood Interrupted, that shares the realities of what those laws have done and failed to do.

Does throwing young people into adult jail make us safer?

The compelling video reveals outcomes of several studies indicating that youth incarcerated in the adult system are more likely to recidivate and recidivate faster than their counterparts in the juvenile system. In other words, these laws that were intended to promote public safety are having the exact opposite effect. Youth incarcerated with adults, as one young man put it, learn to be better criminals.

Many more negative outcomes from prosecuting and incarcerating youth as adults are revealed. When at a young age they receive a felony conviction, their long-term opportunities are severely diminished. They can be denied employment, housing, education opportunities and more based on their felony status. Also, being charged as an adult means that doors to services and preventative programs are closed.

It is clear that this practice is not improving public safety or our communities. More importantly, if we care about kids and what happens to them, we must educate ourselves about how traumatizing the adult system is for youth. Listen to the compelling stories from parents who are giving voice to the damage done by locking up young people as adults. 

Juveniles in adult facilities are 36 percent more likely to kill themselves than those in juvenile facilities. When sentencing a child as an adult, as one mother put it, "you also sentence them to legal child abuse." She described her incarcerated son overhearing the screams of a fellow inmate being physically assaulted by other inmates. These young people are exposed to physical and sexual assault within adult facilities. Isolation may keep them physically safe, but the psychological effects are traumatizing.

October is Youth Justice Awareness Month. There are many ways to help, several are listed at the end of this video. For now, why don’t you start by simply clicking play? 

Topics: Mental Health