The United States has become infamous for having the largest prison population in the world. Our “justice” system is, in reality, unjust.
Many of these injustices start with how young people are treated. Crimes committed by juveniles are overwhelmingly non-violent, and overall juvenile crime has actually declined over the past decade. Despite this, our country continues to operate a system that too often treats children as adults, and imprisons far too many children overall.
Roughly 500,000 juveniles enter or are a part of the criminal justice system each year, and 200,000 will enter the adult system. On any given day, approximately 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult prisons and jails, which increase the likelihood of physical and psychological suffering. Fourteen states have no minimum age for prosecuting adults, and in some cases, children as young as 10 have been tried as adults.
Juveniles who enter such a punitive system frequently struggle when they return to society, if they do return; 3,000 children in the U.S. are currently serving a life sentence. The longer a juvenile is incarcerated in the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to commit crimes as an adult. With such a severe juvenile system, it should not be surprising that our adult criminal justice system is the largest in the world.
One of the most important changes that can be made at both the state and federal levels is to classify children as children, and not adults. Legislation such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would prohibit sentencing juveniles to life without parole at the federal level. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act would provide federal funding to state initiatives for at-risk youth and work to keep juveniles from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
We should remember that Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). Our current criminal justice system does anything but that, and has in many cases decided that children are not children at all. Giving children a second chance in our society is one of the best things we can do to reduce crime, poverty, and promote a system that is more fair and just.
We need to advocate for a system that focuses on intervention and rehabilitation, not severe punishment. Change will only come if we are vocal in our dissatisfaction with the status quo. Write to your members of Congress, and consider additional ways to advocate for reforms to juvenile justice policies, including at the state level.
Joshua Russell is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator for the MCC U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on April 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.