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Lift Children Out of the Criminal Justice System – Don't Lock Them Away

Ezekiel Edwards,
Former Special Counsel,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
Tanya Greene,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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June 22, 2011

What kind of person looks into the face of a child and sees no hope? What kind of society locks up children as if they were adults — and sometimes even throws away the key? Unfortunately, ours does. As a case in point, Kansas City prosecutors are currently mulling over whether to charge a five-year-old child for the murder of an 18-month old. Just think — murder charges for a little girl who has not yet even entered first grade!

In Jacksonville, a “baby-faced” 12-year-old is being tried as an adult for murder and is currently being held in solitary confinement in an adult facility. In Michigan, at the unbridled discretion of the prosecutor, a 14-year-old can be charged and tried as an adult for first-degree murder (even if the child did not commit the murder itself), and, if convicted, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (or, as one judge in Wisconsin appropriately called it, “death in prison”) without a judge or jury ever even having the slightest opportunity to consider the child’s age. The ACLU is challenging Michigan’s juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) scheme.

Staggeringly, there are over 2,500 people in the United States imprisoned forever for crimes committed when they were children. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences youth to die in prison. We are also one of only two countries (the other is Somalia) which have refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences. In 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for an end to JLWOP; the only dissenting country was the United States. Already we have a human rights catastrophe on our hands by incarcerating more people per capita than any country in the world; we have created another by our criminalization of children.

Beyond serious crimes, in many states juvenile offenders are regularly prosecuted as adults even for petty misdemeanors. In Wyoming, for instance, 85-90 percent of all kids charged with a misdemeanor offense are tried as “adults.”

We are cheating our children and ourselves. As the Supreme Court recently stated, “children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults,” and in most situations are not. Kids cannot drive, sit on juries, enter contracts, join the military, smoke, drink, marry, or hold political office. But, when it comes to matters of crime and punishment, the differences between children and adults are too often ignored.

Our priority as a civilized society should be to protect and nurture our children. Clearly, a child who offends has problems. In responding to those problems, however, it makes far more sense to proceed with the goal of treatment and rehabilitation at the forefront of our minds. Despite their misbehavior and criminal acts, if anyone deserves a second chance, it is a child.

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