“I became an adult, for intents of the law, at the age of 14. In reality, I was anything but. To pay for my actions, I was sent to the state prison. … I live in a state of limbo, unable to fit into this ‘private society,’ unable to return to the society whose values I violated.”
The person who recently wrote those words was sentenced to die in prison before he was old enough to drive. In the two decades of his incarceration, we have learned a lot about children’s brain development and about what happens to children when they are sentenced as though they were adults. Yet he can expect to leave prison in a coffin, unless our justice system is reformed to adequately account for the fundamental differences between children and adults.
Our country can and must do better.
This week marks 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. It relied on a body of research demonstrating that children’s brains — and not just their bodies — are still developing, and was the court’s first definitive declaration that children are different in the context of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling extended the court’s reasoning in the Atkins v. Virginia (2002) decision, which banned the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The court said that because children do not have adult levels of judgment, they are inherently less culpable, and therefore less deserving of our country’s most severe punishment.
More recent research has reaffirmed that adolescence is the last stage when children’s brains are particularly malleable, making it an opportune time to help youth get on the right track, as they are especially amenable to rehabilitation. At the same time, we know that during this stage of brain development youth are more susceptible to harmful influences and environments that do not support their growth.
Further, we have learned about the ways in which exposure to trauma impacts children’s brain development by heightening their anxiety, creating an overactive survival instinct and even creating a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. We also know more than ever about how we can effectively respond to the needs of children who have been exposed to violence. Youth respond when given trauma-informed programs and interventions that are created in accordance with their developmental maturity.
Ten years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared that kids are fundamentally different from adults, we know now that policies that fail to account for the unique needs and characteristics of children who come into conflict with the law are not only damaging to children but also do not improve public safety. In many cases they increase the likelihood that a child will reoffend.
For example, we know that housing children in adult jails and prisons significantly increases the likelihood that they will experience physical and sexual abuse and that children transferred to the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend than children who are adjudicated in the juvenile system.
We know that placing a child in solitary confinement, often done for their safety in adult facilities, can cause physical and psychological difficulties, including hallucinations, loss of control, exacerbation of existing mental health issues and other concerns, making it harder for them to succeed inside or outside prison. And we know that sentencing children to die in prison flies in the face of what science and common sense tell us about a child’s unique capacity for change, is extremely costly, fails to deter crime among children and judges them for the rest of their lives based on their greatest failures as children.
Armed with this knowledge, we have scaled back many of the laws that do not adequately reflect the unique status of children. In the case of life without parole, the most extreme punishment imposed upon children, we have helped facilitate a growing momentum for reform among policymakers, opinion leaders and national organizations. In less than three years, six states have abolished the practice, and five others have scaled back its use. In the last 10 years, 11 states have limited the practice of housing children in adult jails and prisons and five states have reformed their transfer policies, making it more possible for youth to remain in the juvenile justice system.
While some significant progress has been made, it is imperative that we demand bolder reforms that are focused on child well-being and informed by those who are directly impacted. We should use methods that are focused on children’s evolving developmental needs and are proven to capitalize on their inherent capacity for positive change, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
It is equally important that we listen to the voices and unique insights of formerly incarcerated youth, victims of violence and the families of both in order to gain valuable information about best practices. Resources must also be made available to impoverished communities, which are disproportionately impacted by violence, to address the underlying causes of violence. We also must address the needs of children who are exposed to violence, failed support systems and other traumas. Incarceration should be the option of last resort for all children, not just white children or children who otherwise have the means to avoid it.
The person quoted above, deemed an adult at 14, is proof that kids change. While incarcerated, he has earned the respect of prison officials, studied for and received a college degree and become an amateur ornithologist. He also holds a job in the downtown area of the town where he is incarcerated and is part of a statewide wildfire fighting team.
“If returned to the community, I think the biggest asset I bring is a sense of appreciation,” he wrote in a letter to the CFSY. “I won’t take even the smallest things for granted. I can’t say for sure what my form of contribution would take, but I hope it involves being present for people in a meaningful way. The support of others has helped sustain me these years. I’ve come to value it and hope to pass it on to others.”
As we look to the future, we will better advance the ideals of our country when we extend the logic of Roper v. Simmons to abolish life-without-parole sentences for children. We must support and implement policies that deter violence while holding youth accountable for harm they cause in ways that focus not on unending vengeance, but on age-appropriate accountability that promotes public safety. They must also reflect what our experiences, science and the U.S. Supreme Court have made clear to us: Children can and do change.
Jody Kent Lavy is director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.