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.