Adults and Juveniles Should Not Mix In Prison

04/09/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

In the mid-1990s, the term superpredator was coined to refer to juveniles that were so dangerous and incapable of reform that they had to be thrown in jail and locked away from the rest of society. The nation was hurled into a state of fear as images of young superpredators flooding the streets filled mainstream media. In response to this perceived threat, lawmakers pushed tough on crime initiatives that included sending these young "superpredators" to jail. Today, the superpredator myth has been debunked, but our punishments of juveniles are still draconian.

The treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system is alarming. On any given day, 10,000 juveniles will be serving time in adult prisons and jails. These juveniles are at a significant risk of being sexually assaulted. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report stated that "[m]ore than any other group of incarcerated persons, juveniles incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse." The same report stated that eighty percent of 420 boys sentenced to life without parole in Michigan, Illinois and Missouri reported that they had been raped within their first year in jail. Juveniles in jail are also are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. They frequently do not have access to rehabilitative services. We cannot keep children safe in adult prisons.

One solution that has been proposed to "protect" juveniles in adult prisons and jails is to put them in solitary confinement. This is not an adequate solution. Solitary confinement may force a juvenile to be locked down for up to 23 hours a day in a small cell with artificial light. Solitary confinement contributes to a huge host of problems, including exacerbating mental illness, compromising physical health, and results in the denial of rehabilitative and educational services for these juveniles. Solitary confinement can last weeks or even months.

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court recognized that children are fundamentally different from adults when they struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Why do we keep treating juveniles like adults? It is now common knowledge that juveniles are still developing emotionally and mentally until adulthood. Anybody who has parented a teenager, lived with a teenager, or has been a teenager themselves understands the evolving maturation process from childhood to adulthood. Juveniles are impressionable and are still cognitively developing.

Monetarily, we see that putting juveniles in prison is extraordinarily expensive. In New York, it costs nearly $352,663 a day to house a juvenile in jail for one year with the average cost of housing a juvenile to be approximately $146,302. The taxpayers are shouldering these costs.

The argument that these juveniles are being reformed and set on the "straight and narrow" is also erroneous. A study of 35,000 juvenile offenders suggests that juvenile incarceration results in an increased likelihood of adult incarceration and a lower likelihood of completing high school. Jail is not deterring juveniles from committing future crimes. The same study stated that juveniles who were incarcerated were significantly more likely to go to jail again by time they turned 25 compared to other similar juvenile offenders who did not go to jail.

Equally disturbing is that these juveniles are also, in some cases, sent to jail for crimes based specifically on their age. In other words, these crimes would not be considered criminally punishable if committed by an adult. These are considered "status crimes" and include offenses such as truancy or breaking a curfew. In 2010, over 3,000 children were jailed for these status offenses.

It's time to stop jailing juveniles in adult facilities.