Universal Children’s Day: No Reason for Americans to Celebrate

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

Here's an anniversary you may have missed. November 20 was Universal Children's Day—established by the United Nations to mark the day in 1959 on which the UN Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989.

But it's not a day for celebration.

Advocates for the the well-being of children would not likely have imagined a scenario where children in the U.S. were routinely processed in adult criminal court and placed in adult jails and prisons. As far back as 1925, when the first world conference on the well-being of children was convened, most U.S. states had established a separate system of justice for children that would treat children differently than adults and focus on rehabilitation.

However, nearly 90 years later, the U.S. does just that.

We stand out from the rest of the world as the only country that routinely prosecutes children in adult criminal court and places children in adult jails and prisons, where they are the most at-risk of violence and sexual assault, as well as suicide.

For the 100,000 children who languish in adult jails and prisons and the 250,000 children who are prosecuted in adult criminal court every year, the consequences are serious, negative, life-long, and in some cases, deadly.

In nearly half the states, for example, children can be prosecuted at any age in adult criminal court. Essentially, there is no floor under which children can't be in adult court.

In one of those 23 states right now—Pennsylvania—a ten-year-old boy prosecuted in adult criminal court is being held in isolation in an adult jail. Under Pennsylvania law, a child charged with murder must be prosecuted in adult court and placed in an adult jail—no matter the age.

Other states send hundreds of kids to adult court on the sole motions of prosecutors. A recent Florida study by Human Rights Watch, Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children As Adults Under Its Direct File Statute showed that 98% of the children in adult court are there because of the direct file statute that gives prosecutors unfettered discretion.

Another state, California, approved a ballot initiative, Proposition 21, in 2000, that resulted in doubling the rates of youth tried in adult court in the subsequent decade according to the California Alliance in a recent brief Treat Kids as Kids: Why Youth Should be Kept in the Juvenile System.

Simply put, U.S. policy and state laws do not adequately protect these children from harm or ensure rehabilitative programs or regular access to their families. Sadly, the U.S. does not adhere to international human rights conventions such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that would protect the human rights of the children in the justice system.

The good news is that the American public strongly rejects the incarceration of children and instead favors their rehabilitation and treatment. According to the latest polls, Americans overwhelmingly oppose the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons, and strongly favor individualized determinations on a case-by-case basis by juvenile court judges in the juvenile justice system rather than automatic prosecution in adult criminal court.

It is past time to recognize that we are not a world leader when it comes to the human rights of children in the justice system. We lag behind the rest of the world.

Rather than always focusing on taking other countries to task for their human rights abuses, U.S. officials and state policymakers must focus on addressing the human rights of children in the justice system here at home.

Although this year's anniversary of Universal Children’s Day has passed, it's not too late to remember the children in the U.S. who languish behind bars—and more importantly, take steps to end their prosecution and incarceration in the adult criminal justice system.

Liz Ryan is a regular columnist on youth justice issues for The Crime Report. She's a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on twitter @LizRyanYJ. She welcomes comments from readers.

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