TRICK OR TREAT: Why Treating Children Like Adults is S-C-A-R-Y
By Marcy Mistrett, CEO
October 31 is Halloween. It is a time when some communities celebrate the childhood joys of fantasy and play, dressing up as our favorite heroes or villains, and confronting our fears of the darkness. Witches, ghosts and goblins remain stories whose monsters go away for a year once Halloween ends. Parents and children trek out to the pumpkin patch, carve pumpkins and drink warm apple cider. Children get to explore their neighborhoods, and later enjoy a pumpkin head full of treats.
In other communities—Halloween is not something children celebrate. It’s a time when you hunker down inside with your family, when you make sure your doors are locked because people who are out, are looking to do harm. There are places where monsters are real and where safety is jeopardized, sometimes daily; where “tricks” far outnumber “treats” and where childhood play ends at a much earlier age.
My colleague, Torrie, who is from the Bronx and runs Voices Unspoken, dubs the former communities as those with the “privilege of safety.” Safety is, but shouldn’t be, a privilege. Safety also shouldn’t be defined as law and order. Especially for children.
Children who are prosecuted as adults learn far too early that the privilege of safety doesn’t apply to them. That the nightmares built around Halloween are an everyday occurrence in the adult system. They are real, recurring, and unnecessary.
Here are reasons why treating children like adults is S-C-A-R-Y:
Sex Offender Registries. Children charged as adults are placed on sex offender registries for life. This includes children who have never touched another child. As states are moving to re-examine the ways they treat children charged with sex offenses, and removing “mandatory” registration requirements, children sentenced as adults don’t get this case by case review.
Confinement, isolation. Due to federal laws such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), state facilities are required to separate youth under 18 from adults in their housing units. Since the number of youth in any one facility is often small, corrections officers often place children in isolation to comply. This is torture, and PREA strongly recommends against solitary confinement as an approach to compliance. If children remained in the juvenile system, occurrences of isolation are monitored much more closely and many states have strict time limitations on how long a child can remain separated from the general population.
Arrests and interrogations. When police officers arrest children, they are required to notify their parents who are allowed to be present during the interview. This does not apply to children charged as adults, no matter how young. Police are not required to explain complexities like Miranda rights in child-friendly terms, and children often waive their rights to counsel or sign admissions without an attorney present. Children should not be interrogated without an adult in the room, no matter how serious their charges.
Racial and Ethnic Disparities. Our justice system disproportionately prosecutes and sentences African American, Hispanic, and Tribal youth as adults, despite similar offending by White youth. All children deserve the protections, support, and age appropriate interventions of the juvenile court with the goal of keeping youth in their homes and communities. Given the large number of youth charged as adults who end up on probation, or remanded back to juvenile court, an individualized case review by a juvenile court judge is necessary for any child who faces an adult conviction. There are plenty of evidence-based practices that hold children accountable and reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, our system does not apply these practices in all communities. This is unacceptable.
Young people are not mini adults, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Our adult criminal justice system is broken; it focuses nearly exclusively on punishment, and places all vulnerable people in dangerous and violent conditions. For young people, the exposure to such a punitive environment can permanently disrupt healthy brain development. The vast majority of children charged as adults had no independent case review to determine whether charges were appropriate. Given the serious ramifications of an adult conviction, no child should be charged without a judicial review that balances individual factors of each child.