Minor Offenses: The Tragedy of Youth in Adult Prisons
September 21, 2009
When 16-year-old Bobby Nestor's mother found a marijuana roach in his jacket pocket she called the police, hoping to scare him. She never intended for her teenage son to be sentenced to an adult facility, or to be harassed and raped by older inmates. After four months, Bobby hung himself in his cell.
Bobby took his own life over three decades ago. According to a University of Texas report released last month, the years since Bobby's suicide have seen hundreds of youth, many younger than 12, sentenced and incarcerated as adults.
The report stated that on any given day, over 10,000 youth under 18 are held in adult jails and prisons in the United States. These young people are more likely to be bullied, sexually assaulted and to kill themselves than youth held in juvenile facilities. They are also likely to be youth of color.
The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) is a Washington, DC-based organization dedicated to ending the practice of charging youth under 18 in the adult justice system.
I recently spoke with Liz Ryan, president and CEO of CFYJ, about the organization's work and how she believes youth can play a role in changing the face of juvenile justice.
WireTap: Can you talk a little about CFYJ's work and vision?
: We are a national organization working to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating young people under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
In the late '80s [and] early '90s, there were predictions that there would be an increase in youth crime. That was based on some prominent researchers saying that there were these young people who were remorseless [and] violent who would go places and commit very serious crimes (PDF). As a response to that, a lot of states passed laws that made it easier to send kids to adult criminal court. As a result, thousands of young people are in adult criminal court every year.
What we've seen is over 7,000 young people are in adult jails on any given day. And, on any given day, around 2,000 young people are in adult prisons.
WT: What effect does spending time in adult prisons have on these youth?
: There have been a number of pieces of research. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission recently found (PDF) that young people who are in adult facilities are the most vulnerable to sexual assault. They also found that young people are not accessing educational opportunities or other kinds of services that they would have if they had been in a juvenile detention or corrections facility.
WT: Adult prisoners are more likely to be people of color. Can the same be said for incarcerated youth?
: Young people of color, particularly African-American and Latino youth, are much more likely to be given a sentence of incarceration if they are prosecuted in adult court than white youth who were charged with similar offenses.
The deeper you go into the system, the more young people of color you find. And you see disparate treatment of young people of color when compared to their white counterparts.
WT: Are there situations in which sending a person under the age of 18 to an adult facility is the best option for that individual and the community?
: The research is very clear that you are increasing the likelihood that a young person will re-offend if you send them to adult court (PDF). So why would we want to do that? Whether you are conservative or liberal, if you take a smart-on-crime approach, you are not going to want to see young people in adult criminal court.
WT: Can you give me a specific example of a young person CFYJ has worked with who was sentenced to adult court?
: One example is a young person named Dwayne Betts. He was charged and sentenced with carjacking at age 16 in Virginia and was sentenced to 23 years with three different felonies. He ended up doing eight years in five different prisons. When he got out of prison he was able to get a job, go to community college and just graduated and has also written a book.
[Dwayne's story] shows the potential of people that we're throwing away if we keep sending young people into the adult criminal justice system. Dwayne devotes an entire chapter of his book to all the young men that were left behind, who are still in the prison system.
WT: What is the organization's strategy for changing the way youth are treated in the criminal justice system?
: The bottom-line strategy is building political will, because the research shows it doesn't work, isn't safe and isn't fair.
WT: Why haven't these laws been reversed wholesale?
Members of Congress and state legislators need to know that there are constituencies of people who believe that young people should get a second chance. The research alone isn't enough; public opinion and polling isn't enough. There really has to be a concerted, organized effort by the young people, parents and families who have been most affected by this to come together and demonstrate to their elected officials that these kinds of laws need to change.
WT: Can you give an example of a local community that organized and had a victory?
: On July 17, 2005, a young man named David Burgos, age 17, committed suicide in an adult prison in Connecticut. His death galvanized a community of people to organize and push for change.
Connecticut's law has a particularly dramatic effect on 16- and 17-year-olds. It basically says that 16- and 17-year-olds are in the adult criminal court; they never even go to the juvenile justice system.
David was incarcerated over a probation violation; it was a very low-level offense. So people started to talk about the issue and organize a coalition. For two years, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance launched its "Raise the Age" campaign and were successful in getting a law overturned. This legislative session [they] were able to get the resources appropriated to make the change.
So starting January 1, 2010, 16-year-olds will no longer automatically be in adult court in Connecticut. And within the next year, 17-year-olds will no longer automatically be placed in adult court.
Many of the mothers of children in the system came forward to organize. One was the mother of the child who committed suicide. During the legislative battle, she went and testified before the legislature and I'll never forget what she said. She said, "Is my child not worth it? We need to make these changes because young peoples' lives are at stake."
WT: What role do you envision young people themselves playing in examining how youth are tried, sentenced and incarcerated?
: When I've seen young people testify before legislatures or elected officials, it has so much power. Young people, particularly those that have been in the justice system, are the most effective messengers on this issue. They are the experts. So part of what we're trying to do in our campaign is bring [their] voice[s] forward, to have them tell their stories.
WT: What advice or resources can you provide for a young person who has been affected or is interested in this issue?
: They can certainly look at the campaign's website. We also have a radio show on Blog Talk Radio every Thursday at 4:30 EST. We usually interview a young person, parent, researcher or somebody who is engaged in this issue around the country. We also have a Facebook page, so if they want to share a story or start getting involved they can join us.
We have also started a "Join the Movement" campaign, so if a young person wants to start a campaign in their community, they'll get some tools and information on how to do that. But we really want to hear what they think about this issue and what they think we can be doing to help them organize a campaign in their community.
More information and resources are located at the Campaign for Youth Justice website.
Antonio Ramirez has worked as a bilingual educator at middle and high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and as an agricultural migrant educator in rural Michigan. He currently does support work at an immigrant rights organization in Zacatecas, Mexico.