Congress must replace juvenile prisons with something that actually helps young people

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This October marks Youth Justice Action Month, which has now become a national rallying cry for a new approach to youth justice. In the 13 years since the first month of action, many conditions have changed for young people in the justice system, but one fact remains the same: the youth justice system is not working.

Congress has the opportunity to create a youth legal system that prioritizes the safety and well-being of young Americans, creating age-appropriate protections and practices for children who come into contact with the system. federal legal framework and passing a budget that includes state funding to close and reallocate juvenile prisons.

Today, children as young as 6 are being pushed into courtrooms and have to go through complex court procedures that most adults have to take in law classes and pass the bar exam to understand. As the judges ask them if they understand the ramifications of their actions, the children color pictures with crayons as the adult chains fall from their wrists.

Young people in group care facilities are pinned to the ground and suffocated for having thrown a sandwich in a playful way, never to breathe again. And today, young people are still pushed into adult courtrooms, sentenced as adults, and engaged in facilities that primarily house adults where they are at increased risk of abuse and suicide.

While the youth justice system is responsible for setting children on the path to success, it actually criminalizes them for normal adolescent behaviors, pulling them deeper into a system that punishes and perpetuates trauma. Research and real-world experience show that young people would be better served outside the legal system.

What if the same young child having a temper tantrum in a classroom encountered school counselors who called their parents for emotional support? What if after throwing in a sandwich, the teen had to clean the cafeteria instead of being put in a choke hold? What if we had a truly fair youth justice system that insisted on providing children with tools to better regulate their emotions and express themselves healthily?

It is high time for a change. What we need is bold, innovative thinking that uproots our system and plants seeds to repair damage and restore humanity. Our approach to youth misconduct is necessary.

Fortunately, we have learned a lot in 13 years. We have learned that we can ensure better outcomes for young people with common sense solutions such as ensuring parents are informed when their child is arrested, requiring lawyers to be present when young people are questioned by police and prioritize programs that allow young people to be held responsible in their communities of origin. States and jurisdictions across the country have shown us that we can reduce overreliance on incarceration and promote better outcomes for young people by equipping communities with mental health services, restorative justice programs and opportunities. employment and engagement.

California, Massachusetts and New York have taken steps to prevent children under 12 from coming into contact with the court system. Missouri, Michigan and the Carolinas have passed legislation to limit the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who can be dealt with in adult court. And more states and localities are closing the large juvenile prisons that have long been a mainstay of the traditional youth justice system, and replacing them with community-based approaches that keep young people in or near home and offer necessary support services and opportunities. in their own neighborhoods. These approaches have led to positive outcomes, including better education and health outcomes, and reduced recidivism and arrests for youth in community programs.

The momentum is on our side in the states, but our federal system has yet to catch up. We need our country’s leaders to follow the lead of states and invest in this kind of change. Congress is currently considering legislation that would protect federally charged children at the time of arrest, raise the minimum age at which a young person can be charged as an adult from 13 to 16, and end extreme sentences for young people. They also plan to allocate $ 100 million to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention (OJJDP) to lobby and support states that wish to close juvenile prisons and invest in community alternatives. These are sensible approaches that we know can work for children and public safety.

Our children deserve better. Now is the time for the passage of the House and the Senate to Miranda Children’s Rights Protection Act, The Sara Law and the Prevention of Unjust Sentences Law of 2021, and the Juvenile Offender Rehabilitation and Safety Act, 2021.

Patrick McCarthy is Senior Fellow and Stoneleigh Fellow at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. He is the former President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a former Division Director at the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. K. Ricky Watson, Jr. is the Executive Director of the National Juvenile Justice Network.


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