Each year, more than 2 million children and young adults come into contact with the justice system.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, states began passing laws to make it easier to transfer children into the adult criminal justice system which exposed them to harsh sentences — including the death penalty and life without parole. By the year 2000, a child as young as 10 years old could be tried as an adult for certain offenses. And by 2010, an estimated 139,000 children were housed in adult prisons and jails across the United States.
Many of these young people are brought to trial and sentenced in ways that violate their rights and strip them of their humanity. Judges, policymakers, attorneys and officers look at children not as living beings in need of tremendous love, support and care during the most influential years of their life, but instead as adultified, violent people who need to be locked away.
Many of these attitudes were driven by the now-debunked “superpredator theory,” which framed children as a new generation of predators coming of age who were more violent and less remorseful than ever before. These children were described as “Godless, jobless, and fatherless” monsters, and proponents of the superpredator myth urged elected officials to treat them as such. This, despite the scientifically-proven understanding that children under the age of 18 do not have fully developed reasoning capabilities and therefore should not be held to the same standards as adults.
But right now, youth justice in the U.S. is at a critical inflection point. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the beginnings of a sea change in cultural and legislative attitudes toward youth impacted by the justice system. This is due, in part, to the Supreme Court emphasizing that youth matters in the criminal legal system through its cases in Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), Miller v. Alabama (2012), Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), and Jones v. Mississippi (2021) holding that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders.”
We also know the vast majority of children in our justice system are contending with early childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which can include everything from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, to neglect or living with a family member who suffers from substance abuse or mental health issues. About 90 percent of children in the justice system have experienced at least two of these ACEs, with roughly 27% of boys and 45% of girls having experienced at least 5 ACEs.
With this research in mind, bipartisan reforms have taken hold across the country to change the way children are treated when they come into conflict with the law. From conservative states like Arkansas and North Dakota to more liberal states like California, policymakers in both parties are working to treat children like children in the justice system.
Since 2008, advocates of youth justice have rallied every October for Youth Justice Action Month to organize events and online activities to shift the way our justice system treats young people. Each week of this year’s YJAM — organized by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) and the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) — will feature workshops and virtual events centered on a unique theme. Week 1 will be Protecting Childhood: Policies to Keep Youth out of the Justice System, Week 2: Treat Kids Like Kids: End the Adultification of Youth, and Week 3: Fund Care not Cages: Investing in Families and Communities.
At Represent Justice, we’re joining the call to end the harmful treatment of children in the justice system this month and beyond. To mark YJAM, we’ve launched a tool that allows you to contact your legislators and urge them to support the passage of the First Step Implementation Act (S.1014), which would abolish life without parole for people sentenced as children in the federal system.
With the release of On These Grounds, we’ve also launched an impact campaign to help shift the narrative around safety in U.S. schools. On These Grounds tracks how a viral video of an assault on a student uncovered the deep-rooted racism in our educational system and the organizers who are creating an equitable, just future for Black girls everywhere. On These Grounds is playing in select theaters and streaming, and you can host your own screening for folks in your community here.
We’re also hosting a live conversation featuring our National Policy Director, Marshan Allen to talk about the impact that these punitive legislative policies have on our youth. Follow @werepjustice on Twitter and Instagram for details about who will be joining, and when to tune in!
To learn more about YJAM and how to get involved, head here.