Commentary

07.16.14

Ending ‘Adultification’ and the One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Juvenile Justice

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The term ‘adultification’ refers to the tough on kids, scare them straight mentality that has pervaded the juvenile justice system for decades, resulting in children getting adult penalties via mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements.

The juvenile justice system is now beginning to see the error in its ways. Several states around the country are undergoing reforms, including Ohio. The nation’s top court is also pushing for changes in the juvenile justice system.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that a young person under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to death.

In 2010, the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that young people who commit a non-homicidal offense must be offered a ‘meaningful’ or ‘realistic’ opportunity for release.

In 2011, the Court ruled in J.D.B v. North Carolina that the age of a child is relevant when determining police custody.

In 2012, the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to sentence a child to life without the possibility of parole.

With these four rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has sent a very strong message throughout the county: children are not adults!

The primary goal of the juvenile justice system is to protect and rehabilitate young people who come to court. Research has found that minors are ‘less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.’

Treating children like adults is harmful on a number of levels. We know that children who serve time in adult jails and prisons experience high rates of sexual abuse, mental health deterioration, and suicide.  Additionally, these children will also have collateral sanctions, which create barriers to work, school, and housing.

It is for all of these reasons that Ohio Public Defender Amanda Powell argued in Quarterman v. State of Ohio that Ohio’s law requiring that all 16 and 17-year-olds who use a gun during a crime be tried and sentenced as adults is unconstitutional.

Children can be rehabilitated. Even those who make a serious mistake and carry a gun should not necessarily have that crime follow them for the rest of their life. Juvenile courts are in the unique position to carry out this very critical task. The one-size-fits-all approach to justice is misguided, and undermines the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile justice system.

Another example of the harmful one-size-fits-all approach is in the degrading practice of shackling children in juvenile court. In Ohio’s shackling counties, all children who appear in juvenile court are automatically forced to wear chains or restraints without consideration of whether the child presents a risk.

It is important to know that most children who encounter the juvenile justice system are facing low-level offenses, have a mental health illness, and have experienced some traumatic victimization or abuse.  Forcing them to wear chains in court only serves to traumatize vulnerable children. A growing number of states around the country are reforming policies to end the automatic chaining of children in juvenile court unless needed to prevent flight or harm.

Today, we know the harmful effects that automatically prosecuting 16 and 17-year-olds as adults can bring. We also know the harmful effects that automatically forcing children to wear chains or restraints in court can bring. It’s time to end practices that scar children for life. Let us focus on rehabilitating each individual child who comes to court so they can become successful adults.

Juvenile courts are supposed to help, not hurt children. Let us stop putting young people in harm’s way.

Read about Quarterman v. State of Ohio.

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