by Liz Ryan
The United States has the obscene distinction of being number one in the world for the worst policies on the treatment of youth in the justice system, and youth of color bear the brunt of our harsh and regressive policies.
No other country in the world routinely prosecutes youth in adult criminal court, an estimated 250,000 youth in the U.S. annually. No other country places youth in adult jails and prisons on a regular basis. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 100,000 youth are cycled through adult jails and prisons annually. No other country in the world comes close to the U.S.’ dependence on incarceration in juvenile detention centers and youth prisons. More than 60,000 youth are placed in these facilities.
As an an outlier among nations on how we treat youth in the justice system, our policies violate major provisions of international human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a treaty that we haven’t signed onto yet.
Our questionable numbers are spurred by our own outliers at the state level. Among the worst states is Florida. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Florida is an outlier among the states because it transfers more youth to adult court and places more youth in adult prisons than any other state in the nation.
Essentially, Florida is the worst among worst. Human Rights Watch’s report, “Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its ‘Direct File’ Statute,” documents 1,500 cases of youth charged in adult court showing that youth are arbitrarily and unnecessarily sent to adult court and that racial bias affects who is transferred to adult criminal court.
As a country that seems to care about human rights violations and in fact, shames other countries publicly for abusing human rights — often threatening to or cutting off foreign aid assistance — U.S. policymakers at the national and state level frequently ignore egregious and inequitable policies that place thousands of youth into the justice system every year in our own backyard.
Unfortunately some countries are adopting our model of juvenile justice. The most recent example is India, which approved an amendment to its current law allowing more young people to be sent to adult criminal court. The United Nations’ UNICEF representative in India, Louis-Georges Arsenault, issued a statement of concern about the new policy:
“Worldwide, evidence shows that the process of judicial waiver or transfer of juvenile cases to adult courts have not resulted in reduction of crime or recidivism. Instead, investments in a working system of treatment and rehabilitation of children have shown to lead to better results in reducing recidivism.”
Should the U.S. cut off some of the nearly $100 million in annual federal foreign assistance to India because of its blatant violation of children’s human rights under this new law?Wouldn’t that set a positive precedent for the U.S. government to cut off some of the hundreds of millions in federal assistance to states for their inhumane treatment of children in the justice system?
“Don’t follow our lead on juvenile justice.” That will be my message at the upcoming World Congress on Juvenile Justice in Geneva, Switzerland in January, 2015. I’ll be urging my fellow participants from all over the world to join with me in calling on President Obama to focus on the human rights of children in the justice system here at home.
Instead of cutting off foreign assistance to other countries for human rights abuses, President Obama should halt federal assistance within the U.S. to states that continue to try children as adults, place children in adult jails and prisons, and use incarceration as a first, rather than a last resort for children in the U.S. justice system.
Only then would we lose the disreputable distinction of being number one in inhumane treatment of children by the justice system.
Liz Ryan is the CEO of the Youth First! Initiative.