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Locking Up Our Little Ones

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His little toes aren’t even visible beneath baggy prison trousers that billow around his ankles. Clearly, this uniform was not made for someone his size. Nor was his prison cell.

The little boy who stares from the front cover of a brand new report titled "From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System" represents the plight of thousands of children in the U.S. who are locked up in adult jails and prisons. Though our laws on driving, voting, marriage, military service, and contracts acknowledge an inherent difference between children and adults, our criminal justice system is too often blind to how unique children are in terms of development and maturity.

Roughly 80 children are judicially transferred from the juvenile to the adult criminal justice system each year. This number does not include the children who are automatically sent into the adult system because of rigid sentencing laws. Estimates for the total number of children in adult jails reach 7,500. These youngsters are forced to face a trial system they cannot understand and confinement conditions that are treacherous to the weak and vulnerable.   

And locking them up with the adults really doesn’t make us safer. A report commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control found that transferring juveniles makes them more likely to be arrested for new crimes, including violent ones, when they are released. 

Children must be held accountable for their crimes. But the juvenile justice system is far better equipped to both punish them and restore them as healthy, productive members of their communities. As we speak up on behalf of oppressed children around the globe, we must also remember those who languish in jails and prisons right down the road from us. 

For more information on Juvenile Justice, visit Justice Fellowship’s Web page. Also, follow us on Twitter for breaking coverage of reform efforts across the nation.

(Image © LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin)

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