By Brian Evans, State Campaign Director
This July 4, we celebrate the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This Declaration did more than just begin the process of extricating 13 colonies from British rule. It asserted that “all men” had “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, establishing extremely lofty aspirations for the emerging United States of America.
These aspirations have not been met.
To be sure, slavery has been legally abolished (at least outside of our prisons), and “all men” is now mostly interpreted to mean “all people”, but our criminal justice system remains a major obstacle to the enjoyment of the rights outlined in the text of the Declaration of Independence.
While protecting society from crime is a valid social goal, the cruel and traumatizing nature of our justice system has proven to be counter-productive to that aim, while creating a cycle of hopelessness that for millions of people results in something more or less exactly the opposite of liberty or happiness.
This gloomy reality is particularly stark where our children are concerned, and especially when they misguided policy of trying children as adults is deployed.
The trying and sentencing of children as adults, and the imprisoning of children with adults (or in solitary confinement in adult facilities), not only represents a deprivation of liberty, but also inflicts significant, often permanent, damage to their futures.
It is well known that children treated as adults have higher recidivism rates than their counterparts who remain in the juvenile system, drawing them ever deeper into the world of incarceration. For children who receive adult convictions, the collateral consequences – which can include denial of housing, education, and employment opportunities – make it all the more difficult for these young people, even once they obtain their liberty, to pursue anything resembling happiness.
Many formerly incarcerated young people have managed to overcome these huge challenges, to their great credit, but many others have not. If we are serious about meeting the aspirations put forward on July 4, 1776, we need to stop giving up on our children, and instead give them a path to a future in which they can enjoy their “unalienable Rights”.