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Juveniles Tried As Adults: What Happens When Children Go to Prison

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Most juveniles tried as adults and/or placed in adult facilities are being denied education and subjected to various dangers, which can lead to permanent setbacks and high recidivism rates.

The majority of states have already started passing reforms to make it more difficult to prosecute juveniles as adults, but there is a long way to go.

Juveniles in the adult system

Following the tough-on-crime era, the practice of trying youth as adults has become much more common in recent years. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of juveniles in adult jails went up by nearly 230 percent.

Around 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults in the United States every year. On any given day, around 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult jails and prisons – 7,500 in jails and 2,700 in prisons, respectively.

Of the juveniles held in adult jails, most of them are awaiting trial, as 39 states permit or require that youth charged as adults be held in an adult jail before they are tried. Though as many as a half of them will not be convicted or will be sent back to the juvenile justice system, most will have spent at least one month in the adult jail, and one in five of them will have spent over six months there.

The juveniles held in adult prisons have been convicted as adults; this practice’s laws and standards vary wildly by state. The majority of youth prosecuted in adult court are charged with nonviolent offenses.

Federal law states that youth transferred from juvenile facilities to the adult system must be separated by sight and sound from adult inmates. Still, many states have either refused to comply with these laws (and forfeited federal grant money) or stated that they would comply only to stall on progress.

A lack of education

There are numerous federal and state laws granting all juveniles the right to education, which apply to youth in correctional facilities. However, many youths housed in adult facilities do not have access to any education. A 2005 survey of adult facilities found that 40 percent of the jails and prisons had no educational services.

Additionally, the Individuals with Disabilities Act requires that incarcerated youth with learning disabilities and other mental disorders be granted education that serves individual needs and prepares students for college, employment and independent living. That same survey found that only 11 percent of correctional facilities provided special education services, and an even smaller 7 percent actually provided vocational training.

The other dangers

The issue, of course, goes beyond a denial of education and other much-needed rehabilitative services. Youth in the adult system are at extreme risk for sexual victimization, more than “any other group of incarcerated persons,” according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. And the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 asserted that children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities, often within the first 48 hours of their incarceration.

Further, youth in the adult system are subject to mentally harmful practices and have fewer mental health services than in the juvenile system. Many juveniles are placed in isolation, which can severely exacerbate or even cause mental disorders that can potentially affect them for the rest of their lives. Tragically, youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities.

The ultimate consequences: Moral and financial

Youth sentenced as adults receive an adult criminal record, which restricts them from many employment and educational opportunities and financial aid. We know from numerous research reports that a lack of education and employment means higher chances of recidivism.

So, it makes sense that young people who go through the adult system are 34 percent more likely than those in the juvenile system to be re-arrested. Not only is this devastating for these young individuals, but it also perpetuates a larger cycle of youth incarceration that is incredibly expensive to taxpayers as they must continue to foot the bill for recidivism.

Solutions: Keeping kids out of the adult system

There are notable success stories that suggest keeping kids out of the adult system can be extremely beneficial.

Since 2005, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws to make it more difficult to prosecute and sentence juveniles as adults, including raising the age required for adult prosecution and establishing alternatives to detention.

New York started implementing reforms in 2011, during a period of budget struggles and several investigations by the Justice Department into failing juvenile facilities. The new task force established a program to keep young offenders in local juvenile facilities and focus on their education, mental health and substance abuse issues. Since then, the number of detained youth has declined by 45 percent.

After Texas passed laws to keep kids in facilities closer to home and decrease prosecution for minor offenses by students in school (like disrupting class or possessing tobacco), they cut the number of children in adult court by 83 percent.


As juveniles continue to be tried and imprisoned as adults, we continue to see all of the repercussions. Not only are juveniles at extreme risk of sexual and other abuse, which is inarguably unacceptable, they also get denied counseling and educational services they desperately need.

Thus, the time they spend in these facilities can set them back educationally, mentally and emotionally. These setbacks are enhanced by the adult criminal record they receive, preventing them from important educational and employment opportunities in the future.

These consequences result in a disproportionate amount of youth in adult facilities ending up incarcerated again later in life, which derails their futures and bankrupts the system.

The cycle does not benefit anyone, and it is far past time to push for reform in all 50 states.

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