The Perils of False Distinctions Between Juveniles and Adults in Prison

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Alexandra CoxI recently visited a young man named James who is serving a 15-to-life sentence that he began at 15 years old. He is now 26 and confined at a maximum-security prison in New York. By the time he is released, if ever, James will have spent more of his life behind bars than at home.

More and more Americans believe that our system of mass incarceration is not working. That it is unjust, too expensive. There has been a change in the perception of nonviolent drug users; the Supreme Court recently ruled that we cannot execute young people and that states must consider their youth before they sentence them to life without parole.

This is evidenced by reforms in federal and state policy and sentencing, and by large-scale decarceration efforts in prison and juvenile justice systems across the United States. Republicans and Democrats alike have decried our prison system. This chipping away at mass incarceration is to be welcomed.

Much of my career has been spent representing teenagers charged with crimes and advocating for juvenile justice system reform. And so, when I think of James, I am tempted to work with fellow reformers focused on ending lengthy sentences for young people charged with violent crimes.

But that strategy has a number of problems. And they relate to the other people I have represented throughout my career who can’t benefit from the mercy often extended to young people. These are people like David, who was charged as an adult with a robbery as a teenager. He’s now 18. After his release from custody he was convicted of an assault, making him eligible, under New York’s violent predicate felon statute, for up to 15 years in state prison. The day the jury decided on his guilt, he received his high school diploma.

Juvenile justice reformers often focus their efforts on what is unique about teenagers and what makes them different from adults who offend — their impulsivity, their attraction to risk-taking and their immaturity. When we focus criminal justice reforms only on teenagers, we suggest that there is an age at which it is appropriate for an individual to receive an excessively long sentence, and that the effects of that sentence may be more harmful to their dignity and human rights than it would be for an adult.

This is misguided and fails to value the need to extend mercy to all individuals who have transgressed the law. There is no bright line that exists at 16, or 18, or 25 when a lengthy sentence becomes less punishing for individuals.

Experts say that if we want to reduce mass incarceration, we will have to rethink the long sentences we give to violent criminals. Indeed, despite the changing public opinion on the size of our prison system, mass incarceration is not ending anytime soon. The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report in November projecting a 3 percent increase in the number of people incarcerated in this country by 2018.

Michael Jacobson, an expert in criminal justice policy reform, says we have no choice but to significantly reduce sentence lengths for individuals accused of violent offenses if we are to do anything to stop prison growth. Jacobson’s point is simple: Our current reform efforts, focused mainly on diverting nonviolent offenders out of prison, will do extremely little to stop mass incarceration. Leading scholars and advocates have echoed his claims. If we want to wind down mass incarceration, we will have to confront these more difficult cases, not only those of the young or nonviolent offender.

The effects of incarceration are deep in James. I was the first visitor he had received in years. He’s developed the physical strength common to many young men in prison, but it masks a deep fatigue and anxiety, which showed itself over the course of our conversation. He has struggled to find hope for the future even as he has received no opportunities to continue his education past his GED and some college courses. He has received no individual treatment to assist him in developing insights about his crime, a homicide. His growth has been stagnated.

Lengthy sentences also have societal consequences. Our justice system erodes the civil and constitutional rights of many, deepening social inequality and racism. Reformers may believe that the issue of sentencing for violent offenses is politically unpalatable or perhaps that people who engage in violent crimes must be incapacitated for a long time to prevent more violent crime.

The available research suggests this is not true. In a recent report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, a number of experts in the field of crime and justice note that “the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.” The experts also argue that long prison sentences have been a driver of mass incarceration.

Limiting the length of sentences for violent offenses for all individuals will help achieve social justice. One of the consequences of the wars on crime of the past decades has been that we have somehow come to accept a growing distinction between the dangerous and “the rest.”

Liberal reformers have arguably been the most guilty of this rhetorical and social trap, consistently describing the need to keep young people and people who engage in nonviolent offending out of the criminal justice system. The public media has both produced and reproduced this rhetoric. We need to start talking seriously about violent offending.

Many of my students were born in the 1990s and have only known a world in which we have been the largest jailer. While many support the idea of prison reform due to their exposure to the growing national media on the subject, their sense of punitiveness remains unflappable: Students consistently draw distinctions between individuals accused of drug offenses and those they see to be deserving of prison time, and they express outrage when they learn about countries where life sentences stop at 10 and sometimes 20 years.

It’s time we give James and David a chance to live their lives, and perhaps even become college students, so that they and others can help us build knowledge about why and how violent crime begins and ends, and how we can stop using the prison system to solve our social problems.

Alexandra Cox is assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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