The New York Times reports that, despite Supreme Court rulings in 2010 and 2012 prohibiting life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-capital offenses, state courts are flouting the law, sentencing juveniles to excessive terms that amount to the same thing in practice (see "Juveniles Facing Lifelong Terms Despite Rulings," by Eric Eckholm, 1/20/14). But even aside from that, the very idea of trying juveniles as adults, and of incarcerating them in adult prisons, is a national scandal, the result of a sort of mass anti-crime hysteria (with a decidedly racist tinge) fomented by opportunist politicians of the right to distract us from the increasing income inequality that's plaguing our country, along with the vanishing jobs and opportunities of the working and middle classes.
This mass hysteria--part and parcel with the anti-drug hysteria which also resulted in such excessive prison terms--started in the seventies, but only really caught on in the Reagan years, as part of the conservative backlash against the very real, positive social change that was taking place in this country as the result of various protest movements of the sixties. As the unions were busted and whole factories were shipped off to Mexico, there had to be somebody to blame; luckily, young people, despairing, seemed increasingly to turn to crack and crime. Serendipitously, from the point of view of politicians who wanted to look like they were doing something, the economies of whole towns, devastated by the flight of manufacturing jobs, came increasingly to depend upon prisons.
It was as if society itself had ODed on crack: as if we'd all collectively gone mad together and decided to start throwing children into prison, and even executing them in some cases!
Things seem to be looking up, however: the recent Supreme Court rulings (by a right-leaning court!), together with the recent legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, should make all right-thinking Americans optimistic for the future. What we need to keep in mind, however, is the extent to which powerful, moneyed interests are entrenched behind the present order. Much of the prison system has been privatized, and the corporations that run these prisons, with their well-funded lobbying branches, have a vested interest in keeping sentences long, and in not letting anyone out, since they get paid per prisoner. Many of these juvenile offenders no doubt rehabilitate, making them good candidates for early release--but their very rehabilitation makes them model prisoners, easy to control. It's the same with non-violent drug offenders.
Another reason not to get complacent is that a lot of the easing of the domestic crime hysteria is no doubt attributable to the post-9/11 anti-terrorist (and, often, anti-Islam) hysteria. (Maybe we're ending the War on Drugs now that we have a new and improved version of the Cold War to distract us.) And we see the same creeping privatization operating even here, with privatized security forces and defense contractors like Blackwater and Wackenhut operating as de facto mercenaries overseas. And corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, and Boeing are cleaning up on drone warfare. On the other hand, I guess we wouldn't have Edward Snowdon if the N.S.A. hadn't farmed out data collection to private contractors such as his employer, Booz Allen Hamilton.