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Treating child defandants as adults – a US phenomenon

Penelope Gibbs
02 Jun 2014

I have arrived in the land of the free only to be depressed about children who are imprisoned.  The Campaign for Youth Justice  has been running for about eight years and has a single focus – to prevent children being treated as adults in the justice system in the USA.  We complain in England and Wales that the Crown Court is not an appropriate venue for children – being too formal, and insufficiently focused on child welfare. But at least the Crown Court still has has to abide by youth justice legislation, which involves less punitive sentences and imprisonment, where used, in a facility designed for children.  Not so in the USA.  There, where some states have no minimum age of criminal responsibility, children are regularly treated as adults in the criminal justice system. They are either processed in the adult court, or imprisoned in an adult jail, or both. In North Carolina and New York, all those 16+ are treated as hundreds of children are incarcerated on Riker’s Island.  It’s depressing to learn that in the 70s children were always treated as children. The new more punitive laws crept in in the 80s and 90s.  The Campaign for Youth Justice is working hard to change legislation and practice, but has to do so state by state, since they all have their own distinct laws.  The campaign is strategic in its approach and celebrates whatever concessions it can get.  But the gulf between our system and theirs seems enormous when a decision by a US state to allow all children leave to appeal their treatment as adults  is considered progress – it’s progress because many states don’t even allow that appeal.