Sentencing Kids to Adult Prisons

Hank Mattimore
August 7, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Sentencing kids to adult prisons is like throwing them to the lions. That's the gist of a documentary movie, "Juvies," from award winning documentary filmmaker, Leslie Neale. "Juvies" is a riveting look at the world of juvenile offenders serving adult sentences in Califronia juvenile and adult facilities.

In the movie, a 14-year-old girl took two friends to a party where they fought and killed another boy. The girl was arrested for driving the getaway car and eventually was sentenced to spend 25 years in an adult prison.

Just recently in Sonoma County, California, a 15-year-old boy, broke into the home of an elderly woman, assaulting and robbing her. The boy was tried in adult court and was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security adult prison.

I wish I could say that these cases are the exception but they are not. Nationally, there are over 200,000 kids incarcerated in adult penal institutions. Surely, there is a better way to approach juvenile delinquency. I have to wonder if justice is ever served when, ignoring a person's age, we sentence him to our adult prisons. It seems to me that, in these cases, our justice system has lost its way and is either pandering to a perceived public sentiment that wants our courts to get tough on crime or is lacking in imagination. To me, sending kids to adult prisons, far from being a solution to juvenile crime, is nothing more than an admission of failure.

Among western nations, our country stands alone in using the death penalty on juveniles. Sending children to adult prisons is just a less drastic form of the same practice. A fifteen year old is not an adult. By law, kids that age are not allowed to vote or purchase alcoholic drinks or tobacco, or even serve in the military. Fifteen year olds are required to attend school and obey curfew laws. Why does our legal system recognize the special status of youth in these areas and yet ignore it when it comes to the criminal justice system? We don't need a PH.D to know that kids 14 and 15 years of age have developed neither the emotional maturity, the judgment or the brain capacity to function as fully mature adults.

And does anyone harbor the illusion that when this 15-year-old boy emerges from adult prison at the age of 35, he will have learned his lesson? Will this young boy, who will be shaving for the first time while incarcerated, be ready to take his place in society as a responsible mature citizen? And how will the 14 year old girl portrayed in "Juvies" feel towards a justice system that, instead of helping her grow up, stole her youth? Rehabilitation? Sure, right. The State Board of Corrections officially axed the word years ago. The goal now is punishment pure and simple.

I talked recently to a young woman, new to the Juvenile Justice system. She was appalled by what she called the disturbing trend in our society (reflected in the courts) towards the "demonization" of teenagers. It's as though, as a nation, we resent having to deal with kids who act out. They are a drain on our energy and our resources. Misled by the media into thinking that our teens are out on a crime spree of major proportions (actually juvenile crime has decreased over the past decade,) our attitude has hardened towards the kids who do break the law. The Juvenile Justice System has reflected that tougher attitude in the way they are handing down more severe sentences to young offenders.

Californians pay dearly to send kids to adult correctional institutions (current costs of incarceration run about $40,000 per year, per inmate.) Wouldn't it make more sense to put our tax dollars into prevention and treatment programs? We wouldn't dream of giving a non profit agency $40,000 to support just one kid for a year. We want more for our buck than that. But we are spending that much and more to incarcerate our teen age kids with hardened adult criminals. We may as well throw them to the lions.

Hank Mattimore is the Chair of the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission.