First Comprehensive Policy Study on Trying and Sentencing Children as Adults Finds 22 States May Sentence Children as Young as 7 to Adult Prison

July 28, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Under flawed criminal justice policy that is inconsistent with evidence-based research, trying and sentencing young children as adults occurs with alarming frequency and devastating results, according to a first policy research report on the subject released today by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

The report, "From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System," is a comprehensive look at how the nation treats pre-adolescent children, primarily those age 12 and under, who commit serious crimes. The report analyzes the available data with regard to the transfer of young children to adult criminal court, documents the extremely harsh and tragic consequences that follow when young children go into the adult criminal justice system, profiles practices in states with particularly severe outcomes for these young children, looks at international practices and offers policy recommendations

The report finds that more than half the states permit children age 12 and under to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences and placement in adult prisons.*

Four states stand out as providing the worst outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Professor Michele Deitch, the report's lead author and an attorney who teaches juvenile justice policy at the LBJ School and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin, emphasized the national significance of the report and its findings.

"State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research.  The adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids," Deitch said. "Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults. Lawmakers must reconsider and reverse these punitive laws."

Other key findings of "From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System":

  • Every year, nearly 80 children age 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court. Between 1985 and 2004, 703 children age 12 and under, and 961 children age 13 were judicially transferred to adult court. The total number of young children in adult criminal court is much higher than this. The data do not include the number of children sent to the adult system through automatic transfer laws or laws allowing prosecutors to file cases directly in adult court.
  • Many of these young children are being treated as adults for relatively minor offenses. There are almost as many youth treated as adults for property crimes as for crimes against persons. Determinations about when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult are marked by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities.
  • On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. In these adult facilities, the youth face vastly higher risks of physical and sexual assault and suicide than they would face in juvenile facilities. The youngest children are at particular risk.
  • The United States is severely out of step with international law and practice. Most countries—including those Western nations most similar to the United States, countries in the developing world, Islamic nations and even countries often considered to be human rights violators—repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences.

The report makes recommendations to national and state policymakers, including:

  • Keep young children in the juvenile justice system. Access to the adult system must be restricted in several ways, including by raising the age for transfer, eliminating automatic-transfer laws and direct-file laws for young children and creating reverse-transfer laws allowing criminal court judges to return children to juvenile court at any stage of processing.
  • Disallow mandatory sentencing of young children in adult criminal court. Mandatory sentencing laws intended to apply to adults should be more flexible when applied to children who are transferred to adult court. Judges should have the discretion to take account of their youth and amenability to rehabilitation as mitigating circumstances.
  • Always provide parole opportunities for young children transferred to the adult criminal justice system, regardless of sentence length. Children as young as 7 could receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Florida and Pennsylvania.
  • Young children in the adult criminal justice system should be housed in juvenile facilities. Young children must not be mixed with the adult criminal population. Any adult correctional facility holding juveniles should be required to comply with professional standards and should be subject to independent oversight of the children's confinement conditions.

* The 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) where children as young as 7 can be treated as adults are:  Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. In addition, Kansas and Vermont set the age at 10, and Colorado, Missouri and Montana allow 12 year olds to be transferred to adult court.

For more information, contact: Kerri Battles, Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, 512-232-4054;  Susan Binford, Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, 512-415-4820; Michele Deitch, 512-328-8330.

19 Comments to "First Comprehensive Policy Study on Trying and Sentencing Children as Adults Finds 22 States May Sentence Children as Young as 7 to Adult Prison"

1.  Ajaunta Turner said on July 29, 2009

These statistics are sad. The United States needs to realize that placing a child under 18 in an adult prison environment is dangerous, and these children are very impressionable. It sets them up to learn more criminal behavior and criminal thinking to survive.

2.  concerned said on July 29, 2009

This type of barbaric, inhumane, morally wrong treatment toward children 18 and under has been going on for centuries! Why in the world do people have to constantly beg and plead for our lawmakers to start doing what is morally right for our children? Don't they understand they cannot justify child abuse and neglect? Can't they understand or comprehend our future depends on this?

3.  cathy said on July 29, 2009

Thank you so much for looking into the facts of our children and how they are handled in our criminal system. My son was convicted at the age of 14 to the adult system on juvenile charges only because of a loop hole in the laws. Nevada does not want to recognize its error. We are now in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The horror of living the day-to-day atmosphere for these young people should be stopped. Thank you for all you are doing to bring this information to the right people.

4.  leo said on July 30, 2009

If you're going to treat "young children" as adults, then let them vote, drive, drink alcohol, get married and all things that adults are allowed to do. In other words, if they are too young to do those things, then they're too young to be treated as adults.

5.  Greg Pulte said on July 31, 2009

This is a disgraceful situation. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.

6.  Tom Winchester said on July 31, 2009

I have a son who was tried as an adult and sentenced as a juvenile. He was adopted at age 5 with several emotional and mental disorders. He was abused by his biological parents and in foster care. We tried to get him tried as a juvenile, but the local courts would not listen. My son is 16 now and has spent one year in a juvenile facility 220 miles from his home. He has RAD (reactive attachment disorder). The courts feel that this will be good for him to be away from his family. I feel that this will make his disorder worse. This has been a living nightmare for all of us. If someone out there has the power to help a child like my son, please do! In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter set up a clemency board to review juvenile cases. We need this in every state! We need to have some higher recourse for these children.

7.  Jen said on Aug. 4, 2009

This is so sad and inhumane. I don't believe these kids should be incarcerated in an adult prison.

8.  Deborah Whittington said on Aug. 6, 2009

Thank you for addressing this barbaric, uncivilized and heinous practice. As a school teacher for 11 years, I've participated in many discussions in the teachers' lounge concerning the treatment of children as adults in the criminal justice system. No one knows better than school teachers just how much children are not like adults. They do not have the reasoning nor the moral capacity of adults. Their motives are less complex, and they practice little control over their impulses. Thanks to all the brain research being done for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, we also now know that a human brain continues to mature in significant ways after ages 18, 25, 30 and even beyond. There is a distinct lack of mercy in this country. Our over-crowded jails are an admission that we don't know what to do with the children who "fall through the cracks" in the school systems. We exacerbate this by placing children themselves in adult jails. We have to wake up, become civilized and address our problems. We must quit throwing up our hands and giving up on our children. Executing them, or incarcerating them for life are not solutions--those things pose just another whole set of problems. Thank you so much for beginning the discussion on this timely issue.

9.  Jill said on Aug. 7, 2009

What is wrong with America? We dare talk and criticize other countries for their inhuman acts toward other humans. Yet our lawmakers fail to conduct themselves accordingly. This is horrible! What can you expect a child to become when you trial them as an adult? The outcome cannot be good. We are setting up the next generation for failure.

10.  Matthew Ortiz said on Aug. 13, 2009

I have to say, I am not surprised one bit. I have long said it is immoral to try a child as an adult because we want to punish them harsher, at the same time we do not respect their judgment enough to give them the right to vote. I hope this evidence can be used to do something about it. Thank you! I'm sure this was agonizing research.

11.  Aaron McCarty said on Aug. 14, 2009

All a prison is, even for an adult, is a school of crime. Send impressionable, school-age children there, and you give them an early start in their criminal "education." If, as adults, they ever get out of jail, all they'll know how to do is commit ever more horrible crimes, and the cycle continues. At least in medieval times when they gave people 40 lashes, criminals were encouraged to re-integrate into society immediately after, rather than being kept with hundreds of other criminals and given years to learn from them. Prisons were a misguided idea from the start, and there has to be a better way.

12.  Helen said on Aug. 16, 2009

This is unrealistic, callous and unfair. After allowing these kids to remain in unsafe, uncaring situations, we punish them for acting out? Why don't we ask, "What can we do to see that they are not pushed to the limit?" We are creating our own monsters by not putting every child's welfare first.

13.  Anon said on Aug. 17, 2009

First, let me say I make no direct attack at anyone posting here. The bottom line is these kids got in trouble. They did something that normal bad children don't do. Besides the article claims that the children need to be rehabilitated, and the adult system can't do it. Well, the recidivism rate from the juvenile system is just as bad, if not worse, than the adult system. The adult system isn't set up for rehab though, but more of a "just desserts" approach. Is it hard to see children in this situation? Lest we forget that not that long ago 13 or 14 was considered grown. I worked with juvenile sex offenders and some violent offenders. Those kids knew exactly what they were doing. Some of them even had the thought that "hey, I'm a child, so I should do this now before the law can do something about it." I work in law enforcement still, and I see a lot of those same people in the adult system perpetrating other lesser crimes now. Some would argue that the system worked and they only commit lesser crimes now. I contend that the lax childcare system we call the juvenile corrections department is flawed. It allows children to do the same thing the adult system does, but without many of the fears of the adult system. Right there we are saying we don't want our children to be afraid of the juvenile corrections system. As far as the view that the adult system teaches our children how to be better criminals: They are all locked up. Would you really label any of them as better criminals? Now if our children start signing up for criminal-how-to forums, I will be worried. Bottom line is there is a need for juvenile corrections systems, but unless they are designed to house those needing rehab and those simply requiring containment (deemed not worth rehabbing), then these children need to be housed with adults away from children who can be rehabbed. Sad, but ultimately true in my somewhat professional opinion. Sometimes life experience in the field trumps a number compiled in a list on a computer.

14.  Anon said on Aug. 17, 2009

I forgot to mention that almost none of the children in the adult system were locked up for anything less than a seriously disgusting and violent crime. You're not talking angels here by any means.

15.  Denise Bunton said on Aug. 22, 2009

It is troubling to read this, but not surprising, given that the U.S. criminal justice system has flaws in it systemically, from racially disparate prosecution through the courts for the same crime. Money is a factor in all of it as well. As a nation, we can no more call other countries barbaric when we refuse to look in the mirror at how we treat our youth, elderly and poor. The "pay now" or "pay later" is an argument that lawmakers do not fundamentally understand. When one young life is put in the hands of an adult system, it is no longer the issue of paying now versus paying later, it is now an issue of punitive prosecution without regard for rehabilitation or an understanding of the developing human brain.

16.  NR said on Aug. 24, 2009

I don't understand why we cannot just reform our juvenile system and coordinate certain areas to place these horrendously bad kids. They obviously did something very bad, yes, but placing them with sex offenders, murderers and manipulators will only create a more diminished morale and, therefore, achieving no goal. Why couldn't we place these kids in a juvenile area with limited access to people (depending on the case), then move them into the adult system when they turn 18? It boggles my brain that it is so hard for us to make informed and appropriate decisions.

17.  Alan said on Aug. 25, 2009

Unless the kid is the real-life version of the fictional character Damien Thorn you can find a youth facility for him. The Texas Youth Commission is no picnic, as evidenced by the sexual abuse of the inmates by some of its staff members, which has been In the news of late. Judges who sentence boys to such institutions in order to receive a kickback from the institutions (also in the news) and others who sentence kids to adult time to feed the blood thirst of the public make me ill. Charles Manson is just the type of final product we can expect from even these juvenile facilities. (Just read Manson's bio.) There has to be a better answer. Early positive parental and community involvement with our youth is a good place to start. Fear and punishment of the system haven't worked as evidenced by the record number of people incarcerated in the U.S. It is a national shame that we are by far the world's leader at this. Making money by incarcerating the "dangerous classes" is truly a diabolical scheme and part of the wealth that is generated by the system is then used to promote the status quo making it next to impossible to halt it.

18.  tom winchester said on Sept. 27, 2009

As I read some of these comments, I have one thing to say. If you have children with mental/emotional issues such that they are at a high risk of committing a crime, I have one suggestion. Get them out of this country! We have a juvenile justice system that will destroy them. If you adopt a child with emotional/mental issues, all I say is...good luck. The people we vote into office do not care about your child or your problems. Think twice about adopting. (It really hurts me to say these things. I have two special needs, adopted children.) It's time to vote people out of office who follow laws that abuse children. Children need punishment and treatment, not abuse.

19.  lori said on June 17, 2010

What can we do? What steps can we take specifically to get this to stop! I cannot sleep at night thinking of these children being tossed into an adult's world of laws and punishment! Is this any different from pedophilia? A child is not able -- not even capable -- of comprehending the needs and functions of an adult -- yet the courts expect us to believe the brain -- the mind of a child -- is able to function, reason, comprehend, think as an adult? If children could reason as adults in any sense of the word we would not have to parent them, protect them, have safety, anything! What is wrong with this world! These kids are not adults -- they do not have what adults have! They have not yet developed fully into adults! Adults have the capacity to discern right from wrong. So, how can you try a child as an adult when clearly a child is not! We have the wrong people behind bars! How can we make this absurd view of justice stop?