At 17, Antowian Kelly was jailed on charges of robbery with an unloaded gun. He had no prior record but spent 17 months in jail before a judge decided his case should be heard in juvenile court, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Laws passed in the mid-1990s to toughen sanctions on youthful offenders like Antowian have created a backlog of teenagers awaiting trial or serving sentences in adult facilities. At any time, the nation’s jails house 7,500 teenagers, including many who have not been convicted, says a new study. About 45 minors, including 10 15-year-olds, are lodged in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail.
Warden Ramon Rustin admitted that holding teens in adult lockdown may counteract the goal of diminishing crime. “I think we’re creating a generation of criminals,” he said. “An authority has told these kids — regardless of your maturity level and your ability to tell right from wrong — you’re an adult. You’re going to emulate adults who don’t have good decision-making skills. What you learn on the pods is how to commit better crimes, how to get away with more, how to beat the system and how to sell drugs.” Liz Ryan, of the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., said, “At a minimum, we shouldn’t do any harm to kids that haven’t been convicted of anything.” Her group says that teenagers were 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult jails than in juvenile facilities, and they were 34 times more likely to re-offend if they had been tried as adults. Youths made up 1 percent of the incarcerated population, but they made up 21 percent of “substantiated victims” of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in 2005, the study found.