August 24, 2012
By Rachel Livingston
On June 25, 2012 the Supreme Court decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment.” While this is a victory in the area of juvenile justice, the faith community needs to now direct their attention towards the area of restorative justice. States have different criteria for trying youth as adults, including the age of the offender, the severity of the crime, a prior criminal record, or whether or not it is believed that the behavior can be changed by a specific age. Nearly 1,200 children are tried as adults every year with no change in sight.
This is problematic for our communities because data has shown that incarcerated youth are more likely to be exposed to high levels of violence, which can be detrimental for a developing mind. Youth who are placed into adult facilities are 34 percent more likely to re-offend than youth who are placed in juvenile detention centers. Youth in adult facilities are also at a greater risk of physical or sexual assault than those in juvenile facilities. While some might say that these youth need to take responsibility for their actions and receive punishment, over 80 percent of children incarcerated in adult facilities are convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Furthermore, neuroscientists now believe that the brains of children, including older teenagers, are still developing the ability to control impulses and make proper judgments. Youth that have been placed in adult facilities are more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile detention centers, according to statistics cited by The Campaign for Youth Justice, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice and other agencies.
The U.S. prison system was originally designed to isolate criminals from society so that they could reflect on their crime, do "penance" for their sins and be rehabilitated. This is where the term "penitentiary" comes from. When we try youth as adults and place them in adult prison facilities, we are robbing them of the chance for rehabilitation and restoration. Youth often lack access to programs that provide drug rehabilitation or treatment for mental illness, which in many cases can be argued as necessary for successful reentry into society. Many adult facilities either do not offer mental health programs or fail to tailor these programs to the needs of children. Juveniles in adult facilities also do not have access to the kind of education that will allow them to be successful when they reenter society. As the Campaign for Youth Justice noted, “While juvenile detention centers often have full time education staff, adult jails have weak educational programs and it is rare for jails to have classrooms for education.”
As people of faith, we have become apathetic to the needs of youth in these circumstances. While young people need to be punished for their crimes, we must also allow them the chance, as image-bearers of God, to change and become successful individuals in society. Furthermore, it is our civic responsibility to advocate for the well-being of these youth and as Christians to show them the love of Christ. While the Supreme Court’s recent judgment is a great start, it may not be enough. We must encourage our government to continue to reform the justice system so that rehabilitation and restoration become centerpieces of our approach to juvenile justice.
—Rachel B. Livingston is a graduate of Howard University currently attending Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as the Minister of Social Action at the Mother African Union Church and is a recent intern at the Center for Public Justice.