Our nation needs to have a serious conversation about the state of our juvenile justice system. Like our broader criminal justice system, it is broken and riddled with racial and class biases. However, unlike our broader criminal justice system, very few people are talking about and illuminating the problems inherent within our juvenile justice system. Juveniles are one of the most vulnerable segments of our population, and as such, we have a responsibility to protect them and ensure that they are not being exploited and oppressed by systems and structures.
For many, when it comes to our criminal justice system, it is as simple as, “You do the crime, you do the time”; but did you know that our nation has a long history of sentencing juveniles to the death penalty? In U.S. history, 365 youths have been sentenced to death by execution. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Roper v. Simmons that death by execution was unconstitutional for juveniles. It would be easy to assume that the legal right to sentence juveniles to death by execution was an antiquated judiciary decision which somehow remained on the legislative books despite never being exercised in modern times. But this assumption would be incorrect. In fact, 22 juveniles have been sentenced to death by execution since 1985.[i]
Moreover, according to the United Nations, the U.S. is the only country that continues the barbaric practice of imprisoning children for life, without the possibility of release. As a result of this draconian legislation, there are currently more than 2,500 individuals serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children. Seventy percent of these life-without-parole convictions, for kids 14 or younger, are of children of color.[ii] The Sentencing Project released a report declaring that, just like in the larger criminal justice system, black children are far more likely than their peers to receive life sentences for crimes, even those that were committed as juveniles. Many of these kids were sentenced to life in jail for non-homicidal offenses and in many cases no one was even injured. Additionally, many were convicted of offenses where older teens or adults were the ones primarily responsible for the offense. Can you believe that it was not until May 17, 2010, in the Graham v. Florida decision that it was declared that life-without-parole sentencing could no longer be imposed on juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses?
Another major problem with our system is that some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in the U.S. Incarcerating children with adults has been proven to needlessly put them at risk. Children who are incarcerated in adult correctional facilities have been found to be five times more likely to be sexually assaulted during their incarceration than they would be if they were housed in juvenile facilities. Juveniles incarcerated with adults have also been found to be more likely to commit suicide during and after their incarceration. As someone who works with this segment of the population, I can attest to the fact that youth oftentimes go into these facilities interested in petty crime and come out of adult facilities as hardened criminals. Despite these facts, and other research illustrating the destructive cognitive effects of incarcerating juveniles in adult facilities, a majority of states still permit this detrimental practice.
Can you believe that children as young as eight years old have been prosecuted as adults in our nation? Some states continue to permit juveniles as young as 10, 12, and 13 years old to be tried and sentenced as adults. This is thoroughly problematic. Our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken, from the implicit and explicit racial bias inherent within it to the inhumane practice of solitary confinement. Solidarity confinement consists of isolating inmates in cells that are a little larger than a king-sized bed for 22 to 24 hours per day. This oppressive practice wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage on inmates, “causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger.” The ACLU reports that “Every day, in jails and prisons across the United States, young people under the age of 18 are held in solitary confinement. They spend 22 or more hours each day alone, usually in a small cell behind a solid steel door, completely isolated both physically and socially, often for days, weeks, or even months on end.”
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, has extensively studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement on juveniles and he concluded that juveniles are severely traumatized by solitary confinement because they are still in crucial stages of development—socially, psychologically, and neurologically. Haney says, “The experience of isolation is especially frightening, traumatizing, and stressful for juveniles. These traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental processes, and the damage may be irreparable.”[iii] Moreover, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence issued a report that read: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” This report also noted that “among suicides in juvenile facilities, half of the victims were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent had a history of solitary confinement.” In spite of these and other corollary findings, this oppressive practice persists. We need reform and we need it now. We have fallen asleep as WatchGuard’s and as a result, these oppressive practices have become normative.
Our nation must concede that our criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed. The church must confess that we have failed to take seriously Matthew 25 and Hebrews 13:3. Furthermore, as followers of Christ, because we have not remembered and visited the prisoner, nor protected the interest of the least of these, we need to repent and rededicate ourselves to Scripture’s call. The Gospel assures us that no one should be defined by their worst mistake, no person is beyond redemption, and since this is the case, no youth should spend the rest of their life in jail or prison without the possibility of parole for a crime that they committed before they were of voting age. The punitive approach to crime that our nation has chosen is not biblical; it does not reflect the restorative and redemptive heart of God. It does not align with our missional call to be ambassadors of reconciliation and bearers of the Good News of Christ within our fallen world. The Church has a prime opportunity to partner with God in fixing our broken justice system; my prayer is that we are humble enough to reconsider our present response, faithful enough to trust the Spirit’s leading above our intellectual hang-ups, and longsuffering enough to be willing to inconvenience ourselves in order to put the needs of others before our own in a Philippians 2 manner.
*This article was first published at http://ctobt.com/juvenile-justice-system/
Dominique DuBois Gilliard was born and raised in metro Atlanta. He completed his undergraduate studies in the heart of Atlanta, at Georgia State University, where he double majored in History and African American Studies. After graduating, he went on to earn a Master’s in history, with an emphasis on race, gender, and class in the U.S., focusing on the 19th – 21st Centuries. While he planned on pursuing his Ph.D in history after graduating, God summoned him to attend North Park Theological Seminary. He earned his Master’s of Divinity from North Park and went on to teach courses at the seminary in the fields of Christian Ethics, Theology and Reconciliation. Dominique serves on the board of directors for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and as the director of racial reconciliation pilgrimages for the Pacific Southwest Conference of the ECC.
[i] http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/execution-juveniles-us-and-other-countries [ii]http://www.eji.org/files/AllChildrenAreChildren_0.pdf [iii] http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/how-solitary-confinement-hurts-the-teenage-brain/373002/