October is National Youth Justice Awareness Month. Thousands of people are hosting events across the country to raise awareness and take action to end the trying, sentencing and incarceration of those under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
Right now, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, 10,000 children under the age of 18, mostly minorities, are being held in adult jails and prisons receiving no rehabilitative services and no required education. In 23 states, children as young as 7 can be charged in the adult criminal justice system.
Many people take the stance of “do the adult crime, do the adult time.” This is a poll-tested slogan that gets high approval ratings for political candidates. It puts fear into the public and advocates for “tough-on-crime” laws. However, the majority of youth held in adult prisons committed non-violent crimes and are not the most serious offenders.
For a glimpse inside a family’s misery, look at Tracy McClard’s story, a mother from Missouri who lost her son in 2007 to this inhumane practice. Her 16-year-old son, Jonathan, shot his pregnant ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend with the intent of protecting her from the abusive boyfriend. Although she believed Jonathan should have to be held accountable for his actions, Tracy couldn’t imagine Jonathan’s ultimate price.
“We lost Jonathan three times,” Tracy said on the Campaign for Youth Justice blog. “On Sept. 6, 2007, when he was charged as an adult at 16 years old and moved to an adult jail; on Nov. 13, 2007, when he was given a 30-year prison sentence and moved to an adult prison, and finally, on Jan. 4, 2008, when he was found hanging in his cell, in solitary confinement… Jonathan’s experience taught me that no child should be placed with adults or in solitary confinement no matter what. When children are placed with adults, they die, either physically or mentally.”
Jonathan’s story is a horror many families across the country know. Youth placed into adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. Although youth and children make up only 1 percent of the prison population, they account for 21 percent of verified sexual assaults. There are many assaults, including rape, which go unreported.
Take action against this injustice. On Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Katzen Arts Center, The Campaign for Youth Justice, in partnership with the School of Public Affairs’ Justice Programs Office, is hosting a free conference, the Justice for Youth Summit. At the summit, experts and students will discuss the challenges facing incarcerated youth and how to create better outcomes for them.
Without a national movement, this issue could affect your family directly or indirectly. Adult jails and prisons are no place for kids.
Deon Jones is a junior in SPA, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing AU students and a national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice.