Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Michele Deitch Michele is the lead author of From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System.

The report provides the first-ever comprehensive look at how the nation treats pre-adolescent children (primarily those age 12 and under) who commit serious crimes. The report analyzes the available data with regard to the transfer of young children to adult criminal court, documents the extremely harsh and tragic consequences that follow when young children go into the adult criminal justice system, profiles practices in states with particularly severe outcomes for these young children, looks at international practices, and offers policy recommendations.

The report, which I co-authored with three of my students, finds that more than half the states permit children age 12 and under to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons.

This issue, of course, has gained national attention recently with the cases of the 8-year old in Arizona and the 11-year old in Pennsylvania, both charged with murder, and in the case of Christopher Pittman, who was unsuccessful in his efforts last year to get the United States Supreme Court to hear his challenge to his mandatory sentence of 30-years without possibility of parole for the killing of his grandparents when he was 12 years old.

The report shows that the practice of trying young children in adult court contradicts the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research, and details the many ways in which the adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit for these young children.

Other key findings include:

· Every year, nearly 80 children age 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court. Between 1985 and 2004, 703 children age 12 and under, and 961 children age 13 were judicially transferred to adult court. The total number of young children in adult criminal court actually is much higher than this, as the data does not include the number of children sent to the adult system through automatic transfer laws or laws allowing prosecutors to file cases directly in adult court.

· Many of these young children are being treated as adults for relatively minor offenses. There are almost as many youth treated as adults for property crimes as for crimes against persons. Determinations about when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult are marked by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities.

· Four states—Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—stand out as providing the worst possible outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states.

· On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. In these adult facilities, the youth face vastly higher risks of physical and sexual assault and suicide than they would face in juvenile facilities. The youngest children are at particular risk.

· The United States is severely out of step with international law and practice. Most countries—including those Western nations most similar to the United States, countries in the developing world, Islamic nations, and even countries often considered to be human rights violators—repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences.

The report calls on national and state policymakers to keep young children in the juvenile justice system, to disallow mandatory sentencing of young children in adult court, and to always provide parole opportunities for young children transferred to adult court. We also urge that young children in the adult criminal justice system be housed in juvenile facilities, both while awaiting trial and after conviction.

Today's New York Times editorial, praising the report, is noted here.


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