Making sure that children don’t enter the adult jails and prisons should be a critical part of how the country thinks about ending mass incarceration, according to leading criminal-defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
“We’ve allowed our most vulnerable children to be thrown away, to be traumatized and to be locked up in these jails and prisons, and we’ve got to change this narrative that some children aren’t children,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, the founder and CEO of the Equal Justice Initiative, joined singer John Legend for a conversation in Los Angeles last week at Into Action, a festival aimed at bringing together artists, policymakers and community leaders.
The two talked about the importance of advancing bail reform across the country as a way of discontinuing mass incarceration as well as promoting criminal justice reform at the state and local level, where the greatest number of people are incarcerated.
Both men drew attention to the importance of electing officials at the local level who could support criminal justice reform, and said efforts to reduce mass incarceration are also strengthened by rewriting a narrative that depicts many children — most often African-American and Latino — as a dangerous criminal scourge.
Stevenson noted the growth of the racialized term “super-predator” in the 1990s coincided with many states’ decisions to pass laws encouraging the use of excessive sentences for youth, including lowering the minimum age for trying children as adults.
Stevenson has been a key legal player in fighting the most severe manifestation of this trend, the sentencing of juvenile offenders to life sentences without the possibility of parole. While the idea of super-predators has long since dissipated — John J. DiIulio, one of the term’s early purveyors, said he regrets his part — children continue to be placed in adult facilities in 28 states.
On any given day in America, there are about 10,000 children housed in adult jails and prisons, according to Stevenson. The practice of placing children alongside adult offenders is prohibited under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, but advocates like Stevenson often lack a way to hold jurisdictions accountable.
“There’s no right of action; I can’t as a lawyer actually sue a state because they’re still putting kids in adult jails and prisons,” Stevenson said. “One of the things we’ve been lifting up is the need to create an enforcement mechanism so every child is pulled out of these adult jails and prisons where they’re being so horribly mistreated.”
That resonated with singer Legend, who has emerged as one of the most prominent faces of criminal justice reform in the country. Before finishing the night with an a cappella version of his song “Glory,” Legend expressed hope that the criminal justice system could give greater allowances to the mistakes that all children make.
“Part of what it means to be privileged in America is that you’re allowed to mess up sometimes as a kid,” Legend said. “We need to make it so that all of our kids are allowed to make mistakes and be treated with love, treated like they have a future and not discarded.”