Adult Crime, Adult Time for Kids?

Michael Bochenek
November 20, 2000

Juvenile crime has fallen consistently every year since 1993, and the past year was no exception. According to recently-released FBI data, juvenile arrests declined 8 percent in 1999.

But public perceptions haven't kept pace with the reality of declining youth crime. In March, California voters responded to the "larger and more ominous threat" of crime by youth by approving a ballot measure that made it easier to try children (under 18) in the adult criminal system.

California is not alone. In the last decade, 40 states made it easier to try young offenders as adults. In 47 states and the District of Columbia, judges can divert juvenile cases to the adult system; 37 states plus the District automatically transfer some categories of juvenile cases to the adult system; and 11 states allow for prosecutors to file cases against youth in adult court under certain circumstances.

As a result of such measures, some 200,000 youth under the age of eighteen were prosecuted as adults in 1998, according to an Amnesty International estimate. More than 17,000 are incarcerated in adult prisons. Most are kept separate from the general adult prison population, but 3,500 are not.

The Dangers to Youth

Young people held in adult jails are at high risk of serious abuse. Last year I spoke with Joey, a seventeen-year-old who had spent six months in Baltimore's adult jail. He reported that the adult detainees continually harassed him by throwing excrement and urine in his cell. "I complained to the C.O.'s [corrections officers], but they didn't do nothing," he told me. (In this article, all names of youth have been changed to protect their privacy.)

In desperation, he resorted to telling the guards that he was suicidal, and they moved him to the psychiatric wing for several days. When he returned to the section, he asked the guards to place him in an isolation cell. Heavy metal sheets completely cover the bars, preventing other detainees from throwing feces into the cell but also blocking all natural light.

"I stay there twenty-four hours a day, only come out Tuesday and Friday for a five-minute shower, then get locked back in," he said.

In fact, children held in jails are twice as likely to be assaulted, five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, and up to eight times more likely to commit suicide than youth held in juvenile facilities, according to a report prepared by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

These bleak statistics may be partly the result of the inadequate medical services and mental health care often found in adult jails. When Human Rights Watch investigated the Baltimore City Detention Center, we learned that it had only three full-time mental health professionals to serve a population of approximately 3,000. Troubling under any circumstances, this woeful lack of coverage is especially problematic because youth in the justice system have a higher rate of mental health needs than the juvenile population as a whole.

Adult jails also offer juvenile detainees fewer educational opportunities than facilities intended for young offenders. It seems remarkably shortsighted to provide youth with a substandard education—or in some cases no education at all—at a time when they are statistically most likely to drop out.

And many of these young people have not been convicted—they are awaiting trial. Young people spend more time in pre-trial detention than their adult counterparts. In Baltimore, juveniles spend an average of 113 days awaiting trail, compared to 34 days for adults. "Being charged as an adult, it can take half your life away," said Eddie, a 17-year-old in Prince George's County, Maryland.

Many jail and prison staff recognize that their facilities lack the infrastructure, the programs, and the staff to handle youth. "We're not trained to be babysitters," said Barry Stanton, director of the Prince George's County Correctional Center in Maryland. "Don't ask me to be a mental health expert, a teacher, a disciplinarian for juveniles. It's not my job."

No Real Effect on Crime

There is no evidence that treating children as adults reduces crime. A study comparing Connecticut, which had the highest juvenile-to-adult transfer rate in the United States, with Colorado, the state with the lowest rate of such transfers, found that the youth crime rate was the same in each state. Similarly, studies of violent juvenile crime in Idaho, Florida, and New York have found that making it easier to try youth as adults does not deter violent juvenile crime.

What these studies do suggest is that juveniles prosecuted as adults are more likely to commit crimes in the future than their peers in the juvenile system. In the Florida study, for example, researchers concluded that youth processed in the adult courts committed additional crimes more quickly and at a higher rate than those who were tried as juveniles.

"Being here with adults, that ain't going to rehabilitate me," said James, a 17-year-old in Montgomery County, Maryland. "It's just teaching me to be a better criminal."

Arbitrary Decisions and Racial Disparities

Thirty-seven states automatically exclude homicide and other serious crimes from the juvenile court's jurisdiction if alleged to have been committed by older youth—usually defined as children aged 16 to 18, but in some cases including those as young as 14. In Florida and ten other states, the prosecutor has nearly complete discretion over whether to try a juvenile in the adult system. In addition, 47 states and the District of Columbia give juvenile court judges the discretion to waive their jurisdiction in particularly serious cases.

All of these approaches have some potential for arbitrary decision-making, but giving prosecutors unfettered discretion over who is charged as an adult is particularly unwise. Without clear standards or judicial oversight, prosecutors' decisions will vary from county to county—creating "justice by geography," in the words of legal scholar Barry Feld.

These overly broad powers can easily lead to other abuses of discretion, particularly when prosecutors charge youth of color.

A national study released in October by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative found that African-American youth were disproportionately transferred to adult court in 9 of the 10 largest counties for which arrest data were available. Black youth accounted for 68 percent of all youth arrested for public order offenses, but represented 76 percent of all youth whose public order offenses were filed in adult court.

In one Alabama county, three out of every ten juveniles arrested on felony charges were African-American. But of the juvenile felony cases filed in adult court, 8 out of ten involved African-American youth.

Such racial and ethnic disparities become increasingly stark as cases move through the justice system. In California, for example, children of color are 2.8 times more likely than white youth to be charged with violent crimes, 6.2 times more likely to be tried in adult court, and 7 times more likely to be sentenced to prison when they are tried as adults, according to another Building Blocks study.

The Wrong Approach

Supporters of measures that treat more children as adults point out that many are accused of violent crimes. But even those youth who are found guilty—and many will be acquitted or have their charges dropped—have the right to be free from serious abuses and arbitrary decisionmaking. It's important to note that nearly two-thirds of young offenders who are in custody to await trial are held in adult jails, where they are at high risk of assault and suicide.

Stanton argues that youths should not be housed in adult jails. "We need to understand the impact, the real costs attached to locking up juveniles in adult detention centers," he says. "These juveniles should really be going to a juvenile facility and, if necessary, transferred to an adult facility when they turn eighteen. We have to remember, these are young offenders."

"You need to get the juveniles out of here," urged Terence, a 17-year-old who had been held in Baltimore's jail for more than six months. "We can't handle what the adults can handle. We ain't ready for that."


Michael Bochenek is counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and wrote HRW's recent report, No Minor Matter, Children in Maryland's Jails.


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Comments

<p>Don&;t know where you bleeding hearts get your info from,but its quite obvious you have never been a victim of a serious crime committed by a youth,Since your site is based on useless facts i then encourage you to take in all the these hardend youth criminals into your house with your wives,husbands,children and grand kids and when they rape and murder members of your family then see if you still feel the same way.One of your useless facts about kids been housed with adults is untrue and just a pure lie to sell your hardluck story&nbsp;for these kids,Its a fact that children and adults are in the same facilities are housed in different parts of our jails and have no contact what so ever other than thier adult jailers(guards)..Should i go on about more of your baseless lies...Oh and here is more news for you the Tories by next summer will be getting rid of the Youth Criminal Justice Act</p>
<p>Have a great day bleeding hearts</p>

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people under 18 should not do adult time because they could get seriously hurt from the bigger guys in there