A report issued this week by Amnesty International takes the US to task for its high levels of juvenile incarceration and for the treatment of those children under the imposed supervision of the state. The report's introduction blames "the notion of the super-predator" for a host of short-sighted policies and conditions representing a breach of international standards on the treatment of children.
Among Amnesty's findings are that 200,000 children per year are prosecuted in general criminal courts, with an estimated 7,000 of those children held in jails before trial. Over 11,000 children are currently being housed in prisons and other adult correctional facilities.
While it is the image of the sociopathic child which seems to drive new juvenile justice legislation, such as the effort to have more and more children tried as adults, in 1995, more than half of children whose cases were transferred out of the juvenile courts were charged with non-violent offenses.
Jason Zeidenberg, policy analyst with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which provided some of the research for Amnesty's report, told The Week Online that the United States is the world's most prolific jailer of children.
"The US puts more of its children behind bars than any other nation on earth. To give you a comparison, the U.S. has more than five times the number of incarcerated children as India, a country of nine hundred million people."
Further, Zeidenberg argues, children who are incarcerated, even in juvenile facilities, are more likely to re-offend, and have worse future economic prospects than those who receive alternative sentences.
"Children who have been incarcerated are three times more likely to re-offend within the next year as children who are sentenced to alternatives to incarceration. Such alternatives can include counseling, community service, reparations and a whole host of others. Also, all of these alternatives are much less expensive than incarceration."
Amnesty's report also notes that despite international standards which preclude the use of solitary confinement for children, the practice is all but standard in the US. The report cites a 1992 national study which found nearly 89,000 cases in which a child was placed in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.
Those children who end up in adult institutions, however, have it worst of all. Children in adult institutions are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be raped, and three times more likely to be beaten by staff than are children in juvenile facilities.
"The very act of placing a child into an adult facility, often integrated into an adult criminal population, makes it likely that the child will accumulate physical, emotional and psychological scars that will last a lifetime. Imprisoning children in this manner is an act not of rehabilitation, but rather of debilitation."
The Juvenile Justice Bill, introduced in the last session of Congress, would have mandated that children as young as fourteen be transferred by states into their adult justice systems for certain categories of crimes including certain drug crimes. And while that bill never made it out of the House, Zeidenberg says that some version of juvenile justice legislation can be expected in the next session.
The Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice and many of its reports are online at http://www.cjcj.org. The Amnesty International feature section on Juvenile Justice is online at http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/juvenile/.
(Jason Zeidenberg was interviewed for DRCNet's radio show, online at http://www.drcnet.org/drcnn/.)