A 70 year old man in Oklahoma is making headlines.
So is an 11 year old boy.
The first has been imprisoned since age 16, when he murdered a police officer.
The second murdered his 12 year old neighbor after she refused to show him her puppy. Prosecutors are apparently considering charging this child as an adult.
The US Supreme Court ruled that children who commit crimes must have their circumstances considered. In 2005, it ruled the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. In 2012, life sentencing was limited. However, many young people are still locked up for life, over 3000 in the US alone. This is absurd! Here’s why.
The Biological Argument
The American Bar Association recognizes differences between adults and adolescents, based on new information coming from scientific advances in understanding brain development and function.
A brief explanation of brains. Most of what we consider “common sense” and “adult choices” come from the frontal lobe; this is where our organization, planning, and impulse control are centered. Juvenile brains are different; let’s get that out of the way right now. Frontal lobe development doesn’t stop until the mid-twenties; to expect a teenager to make decisions as an adult isn’t accurate. While the abstract reasoning in teenagers is likely the same as adults, the emotional maturity is much different.Hormones also differ as we age. Adolescent boys have an enormous amount of testosterone to deal with, which is associated with increased aggression. Behavioral changes, like hating your parents and demanding more privacy, also start around this time.
The biology of teenagers may serve to diminish their capacity/responsibility for crimes committed, but is still being debated.
The Behavioral/Environmental Argument
Children are products of their environments; few are bullies without violence at home, or delinquents without poor parental supervision. Over 30% of juvenile offenders on death row had experienced 6 or more traumatic events in childhood. Adult offenders are far more likely to come from traumatic backgrounds than normative samples.
Witnessing or being the victim of violence in the home can spark violent behavior in children and adolescents; what teachers or adults read as a “bad seed” is likely the result of a bad environment.
Labeling behaviors as criminal also serves to mask other underlying concerns, such as low IQ, mental health issues, and social struggles (i.e. living in poverty, having a parent in prison, living in a violence-prone neighborhood etc).
Criminalizing children through the school-to-prison pipeline reinforces structural inequality, especially for children of color; it makes it more likely people with mental illness will not seek treatment, that trust in authority is reduced, and that violence festers in neighborhoods.
When we put children in jail, we also put them at risk of further victimization. A traumatic history increases vulnerability for future trauma, and prison itself can be traumatizing. Many children are assaulted by jail/prison staff and other inmates; over 13% suffer sexual abuse while incarcerated (mostly from staff members). We are making it more likely these children will have future problems, or even stay in prison longer, in the name of punishment and protection.
The Rehabilitation Argument
At its heart, juvenile justice needs to focus on changing and improving a mind that is still malleable and developing. Juvenile courts have an excellent qualitative track record of success, though recidivism data is gathered by individual states and is difficult to analyze. We do know that the more times someone is incarcerated, the lower the chances of rehabilitation. There are a number of alternatives to incarceration that have shown promise, are based on research and data, and show promise to improve outcomes for incarcerated youth as well as the communities they live in.
(Plus, incarceration is EXPENSIVE. We shouldn’t forget the dollar dollar bills)
Nationally, our recidivism rates are abysmal. Over 67% of people who are released from prison are re-arrested within three years; the number rises to over 75% after five years. Obviously, what we’re doing isn’t changing minds, changing lives, or changing attitudes. We shouldn’t subject children to broken systems that aren’t even effective for adults.
None of these arguments are meant to excuse those who commit crimes – we have to consider our response. If a teen can choose to do wrong, they need to pay the consequences, but it’s our responsibility to ensure the consequences are appropriate to the crime. With the new information at our disposal, it’s now up to us to create sane and humane punishments that will help protect society by rehabilitating these children, rather than locking them up without hope of redemption.
Children can do horrible things. This doesn’t mean we should also do horrible things to them.