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Minors in the Big House | The Nation

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Minors in the Big House

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Te-Ping Chen

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January 28, 2008

First, she felt shock. When Oluwaseun Animashaun, of Providence, Rhode Island, learned that her state was planning to try 17-year-olds as adults, she couldn't believe it.

She thought of her younger brother, struggling to get an education in a city where, according to The Washington Post, less than half of students ever graduate high school. She thought of people she knew at school, people growing up in neighborhoods where over a third of families live below the poverty line.

She felt incredulity--and then anger. And now they want to throw us in jail?

Though geographically, Rhode Island is a tiny fragment of a state tucked just under Massachusetts' sleeve, the state--and particularly its capital, Providence--is a microcosm for many of the issues facing the rest of the United States. Rising levels of child poverty. Deepening inequalities. Manufacturing jobs that have disappeared, leaving a vacuum of opportunities for those with little education.

And, increasingly, the mounting challenge of supporting a prison population that continues to expand with alarming speed. Since 1976, with the rise of a "get-tough" stance on crime, Rhode Island's prison population has ballooned by 457 percent.

This summer, with a $300-million budget deficit forcing Rhode Island to cut state spending, lawmakers trained their sights squarely on one group: arrested youth. It costs $98,000 per year to detain a youth at the state's juvenile detention center, which provides counseling, education and rehabilitative services. By contrast, it costs $39,000 a year to lock someone up at Rhode Island's adult prison. To lawmakers, sweeping 17-year-olds into state prison seemed an easy way to shave off dollars from the state budget.

They hadn't reckoned, however, on youth like Animashaun. Or on how misguided the policy would ultimately prove to be.

Locking Up the Future

The nationwide movement to try youth as adults took off in the wake of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, a grisly incident in which five teens raped a 29-year-old woman and left her for dead. "People started fearing the onslaught of a new generation of 'superpredators'," says Liz Ryan, who directs the Campaign for Youth Justice. Particularly with the teen arrest rate for murder on the rise at the time, the case scattered panic: between 1992 and 1995 alone, 40 states passed laws making it easier to try juveniles as adults.

In fact, the predicted surge in youth violence never materialized. Amid economic growth from 1994-2005, violent youth crime actually dropped by 46 percent, according to a National Juvenile Justice Network report (PDF). And while the topic of juvenile crime continues to conjure up lurid images of youth violence or sensational accounts of gangs, in places like Connecticut fully 96 percent of youth are arrested on nonviolent charges (e.g., drugs, theft).

Nevertheless, trying youth in adult criminal court remains more common than ever. Ten states automatically transfer 17-year-olds into the adult system for all criminal offenses, three others do the same for 16-year-olds, and a Campaign For Youth Justice report (PDF) reveals that in 40 states, children as young as 14 are considered competent enough to stand adult trial. Every year, an estimated 200,000 youth enter the adult criminal justice system under state laws that automatically define them as adults, either because of their age or offense.

Meanwhile, every day roughly 7,500 youth are incarcerated in adult prison, sometimes for the most minor of offenses. Take, for example, the Wisconsin case of one 17-year-old girl sentenced to over two months in adult jail for stealing a neighbor's bicycle. Or the Florida case of a 17-year-old boy, likewise incarcerated in an adult facility after stealing a classmate's gym clothes.

Jail is a "terrible, terrible" place, says Ryan. And this is especially true if you are only 16 or 17 years old: incarcerated youths are among the most vulnerable of inmates, both physically and psychologically. In 2005, though youth accounted for only 1 percent of inmates, they made up 21 percent of all inmate-on-inmate sexual assault cases. And youth locked in adult prisons are a staggering 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities.

While some facilities--for example, in Washington, D.C.--try to protect youth by locking them in secluded cells for up to over 23 hours a day, such isolation can prove traumatizing, particularly for youth with mental or emotional problems. According to one mother whose child was transferred to solitary confinement, such a life eventually drove her son, Kirk, to kill himself. "[We] did our best to support Kirk," she told the Campaign for Youth Justice in a recent interview. "Together we never missed a phone call or visit." But shortly after Christmas in 2005, Kirk was found dead--hanging by a blanket from the cell's smoke detector.

Psychological Costs

Even for youth who manage to escape a prison sentence, says Jametta Alston, Rhode Island's Child Advocate, being tried as an adult has "horrible repercussions." A conviction in adult court leads to a permanent record, one that can bar youth from employment for years to come. "Unfortunately under these laws for youth, a little mistake can become a big one," says Alston.

Meanwhile, well over a decade after states first began trying youth as adults, today, a significant body of evidence suggests that sending youth to adult prison may actually encourage youth to commit more crimes--making them far more apt to re-offend upon release.

As Brown University's Director of Child Psychology Gregory Fritz notes, adolescents are not only more impulsive and aggressive than their adult counterparts, but their brains are also more "malleable." So while proponents of harsher youth penalties argue they will deter future criminals, in fact, says Fritz, locking up easily influenced youth alongside adults may be more like "enrolling them in a graduate course in criminality."

The research appears to substantiate such fears. A recent report convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that laws supporting the incarceration of youth in adult prisons encourage higher rates of recidivism among youth, particularly violent recidivism.

By contrast, ACLU studies (PDF) estimate successfully rehabilitating youth can save lives and state dollars--up to $1,470 per youth.

While laws need to "hold people accountable," says Shay Bilchik, the head of Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, they also need to recognize that youth are still developing. "At the time we were passing the laws, no one had a crystal ball," says Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor and previous proponent of harsher youth penalties. "Knowing what we do now, says Bilchik, it's time for reform."

These days, voters are overwhelmingly endorsing a similar view. A December 2007 poll found 80 percent of Americans support redirecting funds spent on incarceration to programs aimed at supporting youth development.

Meanwhile across the nation, states are reconsidering and revising the harsh laws that continue to leave thousands of youth behind bars. In 2006, Colorado eliminated the state's juvenile life-without-parole sentence. The New York Times reported that last year Connecticut, which previously tried all 17-year-olds as adults, revised its law upward to age 18. Similar moves are being explored in California, Michigan and Illinois, among other states. Advocates are additionally pushing for tighter federal protections of youth in the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, currently up for renewal in Congress.

Change is Possible

Yet this year, even as states across the nation were turning away from harsher youth sentencing laws, Rhode Island was moving to embrace them. Not to punish youth, but to cut costs. Legislators speculated sending 17-year-olds into adult prison (which provides less rehabilitative services than juvenile detention facilities) would save $3.6 million for the state.

According to mother and sentencing reform organizer Sheila Wilhelm, of Providence, whose 29-year-old son was recently released from prison, such a move wasn't surprising. When push comes to budget crunch, says Wilhelm, "it's easy for lawmakers to mistreat the most vulnerable people: the children and the poor."

Like most places nationwide, in Rhode Island, youth of color disproportionately suffer from harsher youth penalties. Blacks and Hispanics make up only 17 percent of Rhode Island's population, but constitute fully 81 percent of all arrested youth. (Nationwide, while black youth represent 64 percent of all juveniles arrested for felony drug offenses, they make up 76 percent of all such cases transferred to adult court.)

"It's up to the point I can't stand it anymore," says Animashaun, the 17-year-old daughter of Nigerian immigrants. "The government should be giving us tools to develop our lives, not lock us up. Why are we defining youth's lives with dollar signs?"

This June, Animashaun and other Providence youth began protesting the law with the backing of groups such as Youth in Action, Youth Pride, Inc., Providence Student Youth Movement (PRYSM), RI Kids Count, the ACLU, the Family Life Center, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). They hosted a youth lobby day, a city forum, and turned out en masse for a series of press conferences and rallies.

Sympathetic legislators, including Rep. David Segal (D-Providence), joined the outcry. "Children can't vote, but we can throw them into jail?" says Segal. "It's an absurdity."

Advocates won their victory this November after, in the heat of reexamining the law, legislators discovered that trying all 17-year-olds as adults would actually end up costing the state dollars. While legislators had assumed it would cost $39,000 a year to incarcerate a youth in state prison--the average cost for a state inmate--because Rhode Island's prison protects youth by housing them in maximum security, the per-youth cost is actually $100,000 a year. Chagrined, lawmakers repealed the law (though 500 youth's cases are still being heard in adult court, pending settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Rhode Island Office of the Public Defender).

Looking back, says Animashaun, the campaign wasn't always easy. "Our education is not the best," says Animashaun. "We're not exposed to systems or government, so many of us just didn't know how to voice our anger."

But for the youth who became involved, it was transformative. "Before, I would say I never really believed in change," says Jasmin Woodbury, a 17-year-old member of DARE active in the campaign. "But once you set your mind to it, and set a goal and strategy, it can really happen."

"So many times when issues happen we don't find out until way after there's nothing we can do," says Woodbury. "We wanted to show that youth are there to stand up for themselves."

Originally from Oakland, California, Te-Ping Chen is a December 2007 graduate from Brown University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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