By Dianne Frazee-Walker
Not only has our country earned the reputation for incarcerating more adults than any other country, but our criminal justice system has managed to win the world’s record for developed countries at 60,000 juveniles behind bars. Worldwide, The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at any given time an astronomical one million individuals under 18 are incarcerated.
It is bad enough that over 2 million adults in the U.S. are sitting in prison cells, doing time for an assortment of crimes that don’t add up to exorbitant sentences that far exceed the crimes. Tax-payers are the ones footing the bill for people to be locked-up for long periods of time without rehabilitation, only to reoffend when they return to the outside world.
The approach this country takes to address crime is obviously not working. So why is the criminal justice system repeating the same mistake by incarcerating our children?
The global phenomena of locking-up teens without proper healthcare and counseling has been ignored for too long.
November 21, 2014, after years of excessive imprisonment and violent abuse of American children, it took a Thai princess, an Austrian Minister and a panel of United Nations officials to believe this out of control criminal justice issue is worthy of a serious discussion.
Some may say, “These kids deserve to spend time in the pen if they are committing crimes.” But, the truth is, just like adults, these children are being rounded-up and locked-up for minor infractions without a trial. In today’s world some of the stunts we pulled as teens in the 60s and 70s, such as ditching school, drinking alcohol or just being a plain nuisance will earn a mischievous adolescent a stint in jail.
Juveniles detained in an adult prison suffer inordinately. Physical and emotional abuse are imposed on a daily basis by law enforcement, adult inmates and other juveniles. Disciplinary actions are no different for young inmates than hardened adult criminals. An overwhelming amount of juvenile prisoners spend time every day in solitary confinement.
Prison is the exact opposite accommodation a child needs to thrive in society. Confining adolescents in a lock-down institutional style facility is the worst possible approach that can be taken to address behavioral problems. Every child should be entitled to a nurturing environment where education and safety are the most important necessities.
Implementing policy that endorses mandatory punitive punishment and imprisonment as the main source of response to juvenile offending is an absurd approach to accomplishing authentic justice.
Custodial sentencing is ineffective for juveniles because prison life influences young people to re-offend and continue a criminal lifestyle into adulthood. If an adolescent is not a seasoned criminal before entering the prison system, by the time they are released, a juvenile inmate is hardened from the violence they are exposed to in prison and are much more likely to offend than their counterparts who were given non-custodial sentences.
Not only is incarcerating juvenile offenders counter-productive, but it is costly. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. spends up to 10 times more on imprisoning children than non-custodial sentences. American tax-payers are forking-out an estimated $88,000 a year (per child) on locking-up juveniles.
The biggest price is being paid by the children who are incarcerated. Anxiety, depression and hopelessness is what children in prison bear. Desperation and despair is even higher when juveniles are sent far away from their families and communities. Sadly, the impact of this horror on children can lead to severe physical injury, psychological trauma, even death.
Instead of child incarceration being common place, it should be a last resort.
Finally, in 2012, this unexcused situation got the attention of the UN. The UN Human Rights Office has collaborated with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Violence against Children and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Preparation is underway to ground break a report to the UN Human Rights Council on preventing and responding to violence against children in the juvenile justice system.
The proposal illustrates the threat incarceration has on children and suggests procedures the juvenile justice system can act upon to prevent the risks of violent incarceration on children.
These measures include decreasing the number of adolescents that become exposed to the prison system, which includes lowering the status of their offenses, making custodial sentencing a last resort by allocating diversion and alternative sentencing and advocating for necessary support services within the juvenile justice system.
UN agencies are cooperating with the proposal by preparing an inclusive global research movement to evaluate children lacking justice. The key objective of this universal project is to discover what is missing for juveniles to receive justice and gather what is working around the world. The information will be used to make changes within the juvenile justice system.
The next step is to strategize how to put the plan into action.
The biggest challenge is how invested governments are to changing laws and policies that will improve the future of our children and how much juvenile justice systems around the world are willing to embrace these changes.