In the past several years, policies have been put in place to help improve the juvenile justice system. The most recent of these policies is “Raise the Age.” While this is an important move forward, these policies often fail to address the root causes and the pathways into the juvenile justice system.
In October of this year, the United Nations (UN) released its global study on the deprivation of liberty of children. The UN defines childhood as “the time between birth and reaching the age of 18 years,” thus echoing the need to raise the age in our domestic conversations. The UN study also seeks to further the conversation beyond simply addressing the age of children, it also attempts to understand the root causes of childhood justice involvement. These are the kinds of conversations we need to begin having here in the United States.
Critics of “Raise the Age” cite that the inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system will overwhelm the system both from an economic and workload perspective. However, in states that have raised the age, this has not been the case. States considering a change in legislation should take the findings of others into account when making this important decision.
Further, raising the age has important benefits to children by limiting the use and length of detention. According to the Prison Policy initiative, “on any given day, nearly 53,000 youth are held in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Nearly one in ten is held in an adult jail or prison.” Further, over 9,000 juveniles have not been found delinquent and are being detained while awaiting trial. Another 4,000 juveniles are being detained for technical violations or status offenses. These statistics are alarming.
As a student at American University, I have come to understand that my goal is to improve the juvenile justice system, while understanding that it is the community that is in the most need of investment. My time working in the Justice Programs Office on the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Initiative has confirmed this for me. It is evident that children who are justice-involved are in need of intervention efforts to aid in their successful development. However, as we have seen throughout history and from these alarming statistics, this need is often unmet.
The arrest and subsequent detention of children further pushes them down a path the juvenile justice system is designed to remove them from. The impact this has on mental health is most concerning to me. As discussed in the UN study, those children who have been detained experience a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorders as compared to those same children prior to their detention. In my view, often times, it is the detention itself that causes further deviance and risky behaviors. Acknowledging the impact of detention on mental health and potential for escalation of deviance is vital to making any change in the juvenile justice system. It is evident that the detention of children should be limited, if not totally eliminated.
However, as mentioned above, it is the root causes of justice involvement that should be addressed first and foremost. The global study states that these causes should be addressed by investing in resources that reduce inequalities and support families. I completely agree with this sentiment and hope to both see further work done in this area as well as support such initiatives during my career.
One way to address inequality, is to ensure communities are able to foster the development of their youth by being able to offer adequate education and positive school environments. To me, schools are an important part of the equation and we should make every effort to invest in the education system and keep youth out of the juvenile justice system. The increase in school security and school resource officers over the past several decades has greatly affected our referral rates to the justice system. Other solutions may include professional development and cultural competency training for teachers, funding for extracurricular activities, field trips and technology, and a pullback from the harsh and intense zero-tolerance policies of the school security era.
By raising the age and investing in our public schools, we invest in our communities, which will hopefully break the cycle of the school to prison pipeline and reduce the number of children who are justice-involved in the first place.
Evans, Brian, and Jeree Thomas. “2019 Legislative Reforms After Raise the Age.” Campaign for Youth Justice, 2019, http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/2019/item/2019-legislative-reforms-after-raise-the-age.
Evans, Brian. “Fact Sheet: Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty (2019).” Campaign for Youth Justice, 1 Oct. 2019, http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/civil-and-human-rights/item/fact-sheet-global-study-on-children-deprived-of-liberty-2019.
Nowak, Manfred. “UN General Assembly Report of the Global Study on Children …” NGO Panel for the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty , 11 July 2019, https://childrendeprivedofliberty.info/general-assembly-report-of-the-global-study-on-children-deprived-of-liberty/.
“Raising the Age: Shifting to a Safer and More Effective Juvenile Justice System.” Justice Policy Institute , http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/raisetheagesummary_final_3_6_16.pdf.
Sawyer, Wendy. “Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie.” Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie | Prison Policy Initiative, 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/youth2018.html.