More states correct the mistake of trying juveniles as adults

More states are finally understanding that juveniles are not the same as adults, and that juvenile defendants should not be tried in adult courts or housed in adult jails and prisons. A new study shows the progress.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
US Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg participate in the court's official photo session Oct. 8, 2010. In a ruling last year, Justice Kennedy wrote of “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds."

Last week, the Monitor ran an editorial praising states for reversing ineffective "tough on crime" policies to try juvenile offenders in adult courts. It turns out, the states have made more progress than the Monitor reported.

A study released today by the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington shows 15 states have changed their policies about trying kids as adults, and reform efforts are underway in another nine states. An estimated 250,000 youths under 18 years old are tried as adults in the US every year.

The progress goes beyond raising the age at which juvenile defendants can be considered adults, which is what the Monitor editorial focused on. States are also removing youths from adult jails and prisons. And they're rethinking mandatory sentencing laws so that sentencing reflects the developmental difference between youths and adults.

Kids are not adults and shouldn't be tried as such. The Supreme Court agrees. In 2005 it overturned the death penalty for juveniles under 18. Last year it again drew the line at 18 when it banned life-without-parole for anyone younger, though it made an exception for murder cases. There are “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy last year.

Treating juveniles as juveniles is better for young offenders and society. Young people are physically and emotionally safer in the juvenile facilities than in adult jails and prisons. They get more rehabilitative attention. Studies show that offenders who go through the juvenile system have a lower recidivism rate than those who go through the adult system.

This doesn't mean all is peachy with the juvenile system, which needs to keep moving away from the practice of "warehousing." But states are wising up to the fact that treating young offenders as adults was a costly mistake, brought on by crime fears in the '80s and '90s. They're correcting that mistake now.

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