Human Rights Watch has issued a disturbing new report on America’s exploding prison population, which reveals many states routinely lock up minors in grown-up prisons.
As you can see from the map below, New York, Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona had the highest number of youth under 18 in youth prisons. (This map uses data taken in 2010, during the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey that specifically asked prisons for the number of under-18 inmates.)
There’s a handy explanation for why New York and North Carolina make this list. They’re the only two states in America that automatically prosecute 16-year-olds as adults.
In New York, 40,000 teenagers are prosecuted in adult courts every year, The New York Times pointed out in a January 2014 editorial. Many of these teens committed petty crimes like fare-beating in the subway, pot possession, and shoplifting.
In Florida, 16- and 17-year-olds are not automatically tried as adults, but prosecutors there have the authority to charge kids as young as 14 as adults depending on the crime under a law known as “direct file.” There were 1,500 cases brought against kids in Florida in 2012 and 2013, 98% of which were brought under the direct file statute, according to an April 2014 report from Human Rights Watch.
That law doesn’t give judges any opportunity to reverse the prosecutor’s decision to try a kid as an adult, Human Rights Watch points out.
In Texas, judges have to sign off on so-called certification orders that put minors in adult court. However, a 2011 special report from the University of Texas found kids were often arbitrarily tried as adults and that 72% of those who were tried as such had no violent history.
The negative ramifications of putting teens 16, and even younger, in adult prison can be huge. For one thing, adult prisons focus less on rehabilitation than juvenile facilities. Kids who go to adult prison can spend time in solitary confinement or share cells with older, hardened criminals. After they get out, they may lose the right to vote in some states.
In light of the harm adult prison can cause kids, some states have moved to put far fewer of them there. North Carolina lawmakers are considering legislation that would stop trying kids automatically as adults. Connecticut raised the age of criminal prosecution from 16 to 18, a change that fully took effect in 2012, according to The Times. (Because of that change, Connecticut likely has fewer kids in adult prisons than the map above indicates.)
On a national level, there has been movement to make sure kids don’t spend their lives in adult prison for offenses they committed before their brains were even fully developed. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles, which was considered a big victory for juvenile advocates at the time.
However, even after that ruling, local judges have handed down rulings that effectively make kids spend their lives behind bars. One of those kids, a Florida boy named Shimeek Gridine, shot (but didn’t kill or seriously wound) a man during a botched robbery when he was 14. He was tried as an adult and got a 70-year prison sentence.
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