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Should Teens Who Commit Serious Crimes Be Sentenced as Adults?

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Featured Media Resource: [VIDEO] Stickup Kid (Frontline)
What happens when we lock up juvenile offenders in adult prisons? “Stickup Kid,” a FRONTLINE digital exclusive, tells the story of Alonza Thomas — sent to adult prison in California at age 16 — and how spending over a decade behind bars impacted him.

Do Now

Should teens under 18 be tried and sentenced as children or adults? #DoNowJuvies 

How to Do Now

Do Now by posting your response on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Flickr, Google +, etc.

Be sure to include@KQEDEdspace and #DoNowJuvies.

Go here for more tips for using Do Now, using Twitter for teaching, and using other digital tools.

Learn More About Juveniles and the Justice System

The United States locks up more kids than any other industrialized nation in the world.


[media-credit name="Annie E. Casey Foundation" align="aligncenter" width="697"]Juvie Justice infographic[/media-credit]

But although the youth incarceration rate in the U.S. continues to outpace all other wealthy nations (much like our overall incarceration rate), it’s dropped significantly in the last decade. A series of Supreme Court decisions, state policy changes and plummeting crime rates since the late 1990s have resulted in major reductions in the youth prison population.

America’s youth and adult prison population peaked in the late 1990, following a spiking crime rate and harsher sentencing laws. Youth incarceration, in particular, exploded: by 1997, more than 107,000 kids were behind bars, only about a quarter for violent offenses. Amid high crime rates and ultimately unfounded fears of a new generation of young “super predators,” states rushed to lower the age at which youth could be tried and sentenced as adults, a move that lead to longer prison terms and an increased number of teenagers in adult prisons. California, followed suite, passing Proposition 21 in 2000, which required adult trials for juveniles 14 or older charged with murder or specified sex offenses.

By 2013, though, that number had dropped by roughly half, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Today there are about 54,000 incarcerated youth.

What happened?

By the early 2000s, the youth and adult crime rate started dropping sharply, and more states simply started to realize this strategy of harsh youth sentencing simply didn’t make much sense. Not only were a growing number of kids leaving prison with psychological issues and a greater risk of committing more serious crimes, but the system was also extremely expensive. One recent study by the Justice Policy Institute found that for most states, it costs roughly $100,000 a year to incarcerate one kid, as opposed to $10,000 to pay for a year of public school education.

A trio of Supreme Court decisions also made it harder for states to slap youth with severe sentences. A 2004 decision abolished capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles. And as a result of decisions in 2010 and 2012, states are now prohibited from imposing life sentences on juveniles. The court determined that such harsh sentencing of kids constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a decision that overturned mandatory sentencing policies in 28 states.

Although today’s juvenile justice system has undergone significant reforms, there are still stark disparities. Nearly 70 percent of incarcerated youth are minorities. And black youth are nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Additionally, a sizable number of youth are still entering the system because of very minor offenses, including petty theft and school discipline issues, a factor that’s now referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

More Resources

INFOGRAPHIC: The Number of Juveniles in Residential Placement Continued to Decline in 2013 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention)
This graphic  illustrates the challenges that remain to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and confinement of youth who commit less serious offenses.

INFOGRAPHIC: Youth Incarceration in the United States (Annie E. Casey Foundation)
Although the United States still leads the industrialized world in its incarceration rate of young people, the lock-up rate is rapidly declining. This two-page infographic presents a wealth of statistics underscoring the sea change in youth confinement that is underway.

ARTICLE: Why States Are Changing Course on Juvenile Crime (Frontline)
In the last six or seven years, states have begun to consider new approaches to juvenile offenders, backed by research showing that incarceration actually increases the chances a young person will commit another crime.

ARTICLE: Juvenile Justice: Too Young for Life in Prison? (ABC News)
This article spells out some of the main arguments in favor of and against trying and sentencing minors as adults.

Do Next

Do Next takes the online conversation to the next level: these are suggestions for ways to go out into your community and investigate how the topic featured in this Do Now impacts people’s lives. Use digital storytelling tools and social media to share your story and take action. Make sure to tag your creations with #DoNowJuvies.

  • Host Your Own Vote: Have have your class vote on the best approach to sentencing juveniles and tweet your responses to @KQEDEdspace with #DoNowJuvies. Make sure to cite sources for evidence.
  • Create a Survey: Poll students in your school about what they think about this issue. Use Youth Radio’s How to Make an Infographic toolkit to prepare them to visualize the survey results in clear and engaging ways. Reflect on what’s most surprising about the findings, and send your results to @KQEDEdspace.

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