May 25, 2007 - BlackAmericaWeb.com (US)
Commentary: Jailing Juvenile Offenders with Adults Only Helps Create Smarter, More Violent Criminals
By Judge Greg Mathis, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com
A majority of the states in this country try juvenile offenders in adult courts, sentencing them to adult prisons if they are convicted. Lawmakers originally instituted these practices because they believed it would deter crime, making the country a safer place for us all.
Based on data from a study released last month by The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, we now know this is not the case. In fact, the practice has had exactly the opposite effect.
Young offenders, still very impressionable, interact with violent, hardened criminals while in adult prison. Many are eventually returned home, lacking the education and skills they need to become productive citizens. They return to a life of crime, this time using the knowledge they gained while in prison.
Trying and sentencing juveniles as adults, in effect, creates a smarter, more violent criminal. The practice needs to end.
Nearly two-thirds of all youth offenders tried as adults are dealing with some sort of trauma: They were raped or assaulted, are dealing with the death of a loved one or are at risk for suicide. Instead of assessing their psychological and emotional needs and getting them the help they need, our courts would rather transfer them into a system that has repeatedly failed to rehabilitate. More alarming is the fact that most of the juvenile cases moved to adult courts are for non-violent crimes.
Research shows that more than 80 percent of the decisions to try juveniles as adults are made by prosecutors (or legislators), not judges. Judges who can clearly and objectively review a case's mitigating circumstances should be making these decisions.
Instead, the fate of our young men and women are being decided by individuals who merely want to show conviction rates come election time. And these are our young men and women. According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, three out of every four young people sentenced to adult prisons are of color.
Some states are beginning to end automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court. In 2005, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a bill that gave judges freedom to determine whether or not to try youth involved in drug cases as adults. The law created a clear set of factors that the courts must consider before transferring a minor from juvenile to adult court. Other states should follow suit.
Processing low-level non-violent youth offenders in adult court only develops a new breed of criminal, many of whom are destined to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. If we continue this current practice, the number of people in our jails and prisons will continue to grow.
Already, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. This costs taxpayers billions each year and tears apart lives, families and communities. Private industry profits, the rest of us lose.
We cannot incarcerate our way out of society's ills. Call your local legislator, and urge them to support laws that end automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court. If your state isn't considering such a proposal, demand that your local lawmaker present one. Ask them to sponsor bills that call for increased funding in education, afterschool and community youth programs instead. Your voice will make a difference.
Judge Greg Mathis is national vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Copyright © 2001-2005 BlackAmericaWeb.com, Inc.
If you have a Dissenting Opinion of a Federal or State Judge, please mail or e-mail a copy to: