12/18/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2014

What Happens When We Send Minors To Adult Prisons

Although many states across the U.S. reserve the right to impose adult punishment on juveniles, an ugly pattern has emerged for those who are taken into the adult prison system at such an early age.

Alonza Thomas was one of the first minors convicted under Proposition 21, which strengthened California laws allowing minors to be tried as adults. The 15-year-old, who was a first-time offender, faced a possible four-decade sentence but received a reduced sentence of 13 years in an adult prison for pleading guilty to committing armed robbery. He was released just last year.

The "Frontline" documentary “Stickup Kid” chronicles Thomas’ journey, during which he spent the majority of his time in mental health treatment facilities and solitary confinement and even attempted suicide. Even today, Thomas takes medication for depression, anxiety and psychosis to cope with the “psychological duress” of his prison sentence.

While Thomas’ case falls in line with many prison statistics, "Stickup Kid" director and producer Caitlin McNally said Thomas “has bucked the trend” when it comes to recidivism rates. One study found that juveniles who faced time in the adult prison system had 34 percent more rearrests than those who had stayed in the juvenile system, but Thomas has stayed out of jail.

As McNally told host Alyona Minkovski, there is a lesson to be learned from Thomas' experience within the criminal justice system.

“We do now know that an experience like Alonza’s, as harrowing as it was, does reflect patterns around the country, when it comes to harsh and severe sentencing for juveniles and when it comes to putting juveniles in adult lockup,” she said.

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