On any given day in the U.S., about 70,000 children are held in residential detention centers, and at least two thirds of them are charged with nonviolent offenses, reports Al Jazeera America. Another 10,000 are detained in adult prisons and jails. Each year, as many as 250,000 youths under 18 are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults. In both the juvenile and adult systems, critics say, young people are at a high risk of physical and sexual abuse, educational disruption and psychological trauma as they deal with institutions that might be unsuited to dealing with their problems and are focused more on punishment than on rehabilitation.
“The more you treat people as criminals at younger and younger ages, the more damage you're likely to do to their psyche,” said Niaz Kasravi, director of the criminal-justice program at the NAACP. As a result, 23 states since 2005 have enacted some type of legislation to reduce youth exposure to the adult criminal system. But some states are behind the curve. New York and North Carolina are the only two remaining states where the age of criminal responsibility is still 16 — meaning that 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults. New York prosecutes children as young as 7 as juvenile delinquents. Activists say that keeping younger people out of the criminal justice system would make communities safer and not lead to an increase in crime or give youths a free hand to behave badly. “Young people have a lot more potential for change,” said Kasravi.