Outcomes are better in states and other countries where 17-year olds aren't tried as adults
Wisconsin has a juvenile detention problem. Recent reports have detailed issues with centers focusing on young inmates, including a long list of abuses and procedural miscues from Lincoln Hills School for Boys, and its companion site Copper Lake School for Girls.
Reports on abuses dating as far back as 2012 were largely ignored by the state. A Racine County judge sent warnings to Gov. Scott Walker at that time detailing alleged problems with the Lincoln Hills facility, and the county stopped sending juvenile offenders shortly after.
Yet those warnings went unheeded, and problems at the facility persisted. A federal investigation into civil rights violations, including child neglect, sexual and physical abuse, and excessive force is still ongoing. In one instance, a youth’s toes had to be amputated after being slammed in a doorway.
Clearly changes need to be considered for how we treat our youth in the justice system. But a broader change on how we treat juvenile offenders may also require special attention.
Recidivism a problem
Wisconsin’s youngest offenders have a recidivism rate of nearly 64 percent (PDF) in the three years after they leave detention facilities. That means, three years or less out of the justice system, children or young adults are back to committing crimes. The process of rehabilitation is coming up short, and youth are typically back inside of a jail cell not long after they left the system in the first place.
This is because our justice system, as a whole, focuses too strongly on punishment rather than corrections. In the juvenile system, this is especially alarming, given that youth who commit crimes aren’t always aware of what their actions entail for their lives in the long run.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision making, planning, and personality, doesn’t fully develop in most cases by the time an individual reaches the age of 25. These studies have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court when it came to sentencing juveniles to death sentences, a practice they abolished in a 5-4 ruling in 2005. Similarly, sending children to prison facilities that do little to correct their behaviors results in a cyclical outcome, where they’re more likely to become offenders again in the future.
Issues with trying kids as adults
In Wisconsin, children as young as 10 are automatically tried as adults in violent criminal cases. In other cases, attorneys may appeal to judges to try children this young as adults, and if the judge agrees they can be. Every 17-year old, regardless of the severity of the crime, is also charged in adult court.
This may make sense to some people, but again, the severity of the crime may not weigh on the mind of the youth perpetrating it. Children don’t belong in adult courts -- and they don’t belong in adult prisons, either. The effects of sentencing children this young to prison can result in a long, arduous life that entails abuses in correction facilities for the duration of their time there, including physical and sexual abuse from other inmates (and in some documented occasions from prison staff as well).
Recidivism, already a problem for young offenders, is even greater when they’re convicted as adults. Youth who are convicted and sentenced as adults are 44 percent more likely to be arrested in felony-related crimes than youth who are tried in more appropriate venues for their ages.
The answer to reforming youth sentencing may be as simple as trying offenders as youths, even in violent criminal cases. Doing so tends to result in better outcomes in the long-run, for both the offender wanting to re-enter society as well as society wanting to spend less resources on a youth who may commit crimes again once released.
Redefining “youth” may provide better outcomes
But limiting the definition of “youth” up to age 17 may also be problematic. The adolescent mind, having not yet developed to its full potential by this age, clearly plays some role in young offenders’ decision making processes. Would adjudicating “youth” all the way up to their twenties provide a better way to prevent recidivism and criminal acts in the future?
Other nations have experimented with this notion, and have found successes. In Germany, for example, young people as old as 21 have been placed in the juvenile justice system -- and it’s paid off. Recidivism has dropped, with some studies demonstrating that more than half of offenders didn’t go on to commit crimes further down the line.
That’s a substantial contrast to what Wisconsin is seeing, and it shouldn’t be brushed aside as a potential way to drive down our recidivism rates. Three other states in the nation have considered the option, and though efforts so far have failed in those states, they are likely to be pushed for again in the near future. Wisconsin should also consider extending the definition of a young criminal to age 21.
Banning solitary confinement for youth
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners, curtailing it significantly for all others, recognizing its detrimental effects on the psyche of young offenders especially.
“Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences,” he wrote in January. “It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior...Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.”
But while the president’s actions limited its use in federal prisons, solitary confinement remains in use for juveniles in state prisons across the country, including in Wisconsin. Following the president’s remarks, the ACLU of Wisconsin urged leaders to curtail solitary for all prisoners, including abolishing its use for juveniles.
Except for rare instances where the health and safety of the inmate, or of other inmates and officers, is threatened, solitary confinement for youth should be reduced significantly, or barring that eliminated completely. It should be a method of last resort, not used for minor infractions as a method of punishment, and shortened in the length of time that it is used.
The mind of the youth is still developing -- and use of solitary corrupts that growth, instilling negative behavior traits and possible mental health problems that these individuals should not be subjected to. Except for emergency purposes, solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners should be banned, and considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Focusing on rehabilitation, not punishment
Of course, the German system mentioned above (and many other nation’s methods) focuses on rehabilitation as well for youth offenders rather than incarceration. In their sentencing standards, German judges often provide youth with a myriad of options to better themselves, including social training and aggression management -- and in some cases, ordering offenders to regularly meet with the victims of their crimes, to see the consequences of their actions firsthand.
In short, it focuses on assisting the troubled child in growing up. They even provide substantial job training, providing the offender with skills to use once they’ve done their time.
American juvenile sentencing is often more flexible than adult sentencing as well, but more reforms are needed that can reduce recidivism into young adulthood. Focus should be further dedicated to rehabilitation, recognizing that the child’s mind isn’t yet fully developed and may need further guidance rather than punishment.
In Wisconsin, where juvenile detention methods and failures are already being scrutinized, we have an opportunity to lead the way for the rest of the nation. We should recognize our failures, and produce meaningful results that bring about better livelihoods for children who are often forgotten about by the rest of society.
It is deplorable that these children, often forgotten about or actively dismissed by society as a whole, should have to face adult sentencing standards or otherwise be subjected to rehabilitation methods that are proven ineffective. We need reform for these kids, who are still growing up but in a system that provides little in the form of meaningful development.