A Good Week for Juvenile Justice, But the Work Isn't Done


It's been a big week for young people in the justice system.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that those previously sentenced to life without parole as juveniles must have at least a chance at life outside prison walls.

And President Obama's subsequent ban, announced the same day, on solitary confinement for young people in federal prisons marks another critical acknowledgment of how we need to think about young people in prison. These recognitions—of both science and the human capacity for change—feel like justice. They are steps in the right direction.

Americans have reason to be proud of these changes. Still, I am left wondering why the wise principles that supported these decisions are not in use at every point in our juvenile justice system.

This week's ruling in Montgomery v. Alabama extended the Court's holding in Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 decision that established the unconstitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, applying it retroactively to all people currently imprisoned.

Both these rulings rely on the latest scientific research about how young people mature. Decision-making, judgment, and full comprehension of consequences come gradually, over decades, and the brain itself is not finished developing until around age 25.

It is heartening to see these scientific facts incorporated into a legal framework that now protects juveniles in all but the most extreme cases from a sentence of life without a chance for parole—truly, “cruel and unusual punishment” for any young person.

But what about the rest of the young people who come into contact with the justice system each year for offenses that do not rise to this level?

As reported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 50,000 young people are in residential placement on any given day. Two-thirds of those are held for nonviolent charges, which include property and drug offenses as well as technical violations and status offenses (acts that are not criminal for those over age 18).

Let's look at these young people through the prism that the Court applied in Miller and that the President incorporated into his ban on solitary confinement.

Do we believe, as communities—as a society—that more than 30,000 young people, none of whom are charged with an act of violence, should lose their freedom? Does our willingness to accept this as part of our justice system match up with our understanding of science and fair treatment?

And even for young people charged with a violent crime, how much advantage is gained—for anyone—when children not at high risk for committing another crime are held behind bars during critical developmental years?

This is not just about fairness.

It's about common sense. Many people think that communities are safer if those who have committed crimes are locked up, but this is not the case. Research shows little impact on recidivism when we lock up those at low risk to commit another crime. In fact, all young people who experience confinement face greater challenges to their successful growth and development as well as heightened risks to their safety; and research shows that confinement as a juvenile is correlated with greater likelihood of future crime and return to incarceration, resulting in potential danger to the community.

Importantly, most of those who are confined return to their communities. For better or for worse, they bring their experiences back home with them.

If we are going to incarcerate any young people, we must use the knowledge we have about brain development to ensure safe conditions and appropriate services for those in residential placement. We must also emphasize effective reentry supports so that individuals can find success when they come back to their homes and neighborhoods.

Taking another step backward in the process, our understanding of human development should also impact our legislation. Despite the fact that the highest Court in our land recognizes that people mature around age 25, nine states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, with two of those also prosecuting 16-year-olds as adults.

These laws put young people in the worst possible situation for tapping into the “capacity for reform” that the Court has recognized as one of their distinguishing qualities: Youth face higher levels of danger and receive less in the way of treatment and education while in the adult system.

This week our President and our highest Court recognized the need for protection of our young people and their constitutional rights, taking important steps toward repairing the cumulative impact of the tough-on-crime approaches that have only served to work against public safety in the long run.

This recognition is due, in no small part, to the collective efforts of our country's research and advocacy communities; the voices of system-involved young people and their families; and thoughtful government leaders across the political spectrum.

Let's use this momentum to make equally thrilling new strides toward the creation of a system of justice for young people based on the principles of rehabilitation and transformation. Our next steps should rely on research and empirical evidence to create lasting reform and increased public safety.

They should draw on the strengths of communities in responding to young people and helping them achieve success. Finally, next steps must help achieve equity for youth of color, who are overrepresented at every decision point in the juvenile justice system.

No matter who you are, you can help. Talk to your legislator about raising the age of prosecution. Advocate for local school discipline practices that don't feed the school-to-prison pipeline. Connect with a reentry organization in your community to offer mentoring or other assistance.

It may not seem as significant as a Supreme Court decision or an executive order, or ever get written up in a national newspaper; but to the young people who must navigate our juvenile justice system every day, you may matter even more.

Kathy Park is the chief executive officer of National Council on Crime & Delinquency. NCCD works to improve outcomes for at-risk children, adults, families, and communities by bringing research and data-driven decision making to the juvenile and adult criminal justice, child welfare, and adult protection systems. Ms. Park welcomes comments from readers.

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