Monday, July 27, 2009

12 and in Prison

From the New York Times editorial board:

According to the study, every state allows juveniles to be tried as adults, and more than 20 states permit preadolescent children as young as 7 to be tried in adult courts.

This is terrible public policy. Children who are convicted and sentenced as adults are much more likely to become violent offenders — and to return to an adult jail later on — than children tried in the juvenile justice system.

Despite these well-known risks, policy makers across the country do not have reliable data on just how many children are being shunted into the adult system by state statutes or prosecutors, who have the discretion to file cases in the adult courts.

But there is reasonably reliable data showing juvenile court judges send about 80 children ages 13 and under into the adult courts each year. These statistics explode the myth that those children have committed especially heinous acts.

The data suggest, for example, that children 13 and under who commit crimes like burglary and theft are just as likely to be sent to adult courts as children who commit serious acts of violence against people. As has been shown in previous studies, minority defendants are more likely to get adult treatment than their white counterparts who commit comparable offenses.

More here.

Of course, I thoroughly agree with the point the Times is making here. We send too many children into the adult prison population, in flawed and sometimes racist judicial processes that vary wildly from state to state. If you've been reading Real Art for a while, you already know that I believe US prisons are such heinous torture chambers that I've effectively disqualified myself from ever serving on a jury for a criminal trial, so of course I'm opposed to sending children there, just as I'm opposed to sending adults there.

I mean okay, I understand that we need to keep murderers and child molesters off the streets; I just don't think we should expose convicts to rape, or HIV, or substandard medical care, or racist violence urged on by guards and wardens. I think we should treat prisoners decently. I think we should do our damnedest to rehabilitate criminals, even if we might not ever completely succeed with most of them. The prison system we have now doesn't even pretend to do any of that. It's bad enough that we send adults into the system we have, but a thousand times worse sending children there.

So why does the Times dance around the real issue here? That is, why do we sometimes try children as adults? For that matter, why do we have separate judicial systems for adults and children?

As far as I can tell, we have a juvenile judicial system because society collectively believes that children, intellectually and emotionally underdeveloped as they necessarily are, cannot possibly understand concepts like responsibility or consequences in the way that adults do; society also believes that children are essentially unfinished books, that, unlike adults, children can be saved from a life of crime if we intervene quickly and intensely. So far so good, I can't say that I disagree with much of that rationale. Why, then, do we throw all that out the window from time to time and throw kids into the adult judicial system? To be honest, I don't really know.

It seems that when children commit crimes that shock the conscience, society stops thinking clearly and screams for blood. That is, we throw ten year old murderers in with hardened criminals because we lust for vengeance. On the other hand, the study quoted by the Times strongly suggests that underage thieves get hard time, too, so it can't simply be about irrational urges for revenge.

Either way, it's fucked up. Children really are emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped relative to adults. Children cannot possibly be held to the same level of accountability to which we hold adults. (And, just to fan the flames a bit, the age of eighteen is a rather arbitrary cutoff point when considering these issues: the human brain is not fully developed until an individual is in his mid twenties or so; that is, people are not cognitively, emotionally, and biologically mature until their late twenties.) At any rate, I praise the Times for taking a stand on this, but they didn't go far enough.

We should never try children as adults. Ever. There's just no civilized point in doing so.