Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Children and Youth

On any given day, about 70,000 children and youth are held in juvenile residential detention in the U.S., and an additional 10,000 are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons.  Because of their youth, size and developmental status, they are especially vulnerable to maltreatment while incarcerated.  According to Justice for Families, one in eight youths report having been sexually assaulted by corrections staff or other minors during their incarceration.  

But incarceration is not their only connection to the criminal justice system.  Children are twice as likely as adults to be victims of violent crimes.  And an estimated 1.5 million children currently have a parent in prison.  

Spending time behind bars can have a tremendous effect on the lives of young people.  According to Justice for Families, 69 percent of families surveyed reported that it was difficult or very difficult to get their children back into school following a detention.  Once in the system, many remain incarcerated or return on new charges.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that within three years of release from detention, up to 72 percent of juvenile offenders are convicted of a new crime.  The number of young adults aged 18 to 29 in U.S. prisons is more than 775,000.  Once they exit the system, young people who have been incarcerated suffer significant earning losses compared to their peers who have not been incarcerated – up to 30 percent for as long as ten years after their release.  This can be offset by good experiences with employment, marriage, and graduation from high school.  

There is growing concern that too many children are moving directly from public schools into juvenile detention in a pattern so prominent it has become known as the school to prison pipeline.  These may be students whose reading skills are so low in middle school that they fall behind and drop out as they enter high school.  They may have fallen into sequential sanctions of zero tolerance discipline policies.  They may be students who have never felt connected to any of the adults at school or who have never participated in a co-curricular activity. 

We are making progress.  In March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders.  And in June 2012, the Court issued a historic ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences cannot be given for children 17 and younger who are convicted of homicide.  The ruling does not ban juvenile life without parole sentences, but requires courts to consider each case carefully, taking into consideration the diminished culpability of children and their capacity for change.  This ruling will affect hundreds of people who received life sentences for crimes committed as children, and their sentencing must now be reviewed.  

Churches should be concerned about the children who feel hopeless or thrown away.  Here are resources that will help you explore the entire continuum of the school-prison pipeline.  Then we hope you will find a place where a group from your church can be involved … anywhere along the pipeline.

November 2012: The National Research Council has published Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.

The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit human rights organization that focuses on children and the incarcerated, challenges injustices, and works for criminal justice system reform.  It currently seeks to end prosecution of children under age 14 as adults and placing juveniles in adult detention.  See especially All Children are Children: Challenging Abusive Punishment of Juveniles, EJI, 2012.  

The Child Trends Data Bank offers information on children, youth and young adults in the justice system.  

The Juvenile Justice and Families and Prisons  pages of the Justice and Witness Ministries Issues Pages provide resources about children and criminal justice.

There are also several relevant UCC General Synod resolutions which offer more detailed background and discussion, including the Juvenile Justice Resolution (GS23-2001), calling for opportunities for alternative sentencing, education and prevention, and a resolution on Access to Excellent Public Schools:  A Child’s Right in the 21st Century (GS23-2001), which led to the convening of the UCC Public Education Task Force.  

On the School-to-Prison Pipeline

On Juvenile Justice

October-November 2009  Youth Criminal Justice Alert:  The United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries has become part of an amicus brief in two important cases coming before the U.S. Supreme Court on November 9, 2009: Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. Joe Sullivan at the time of his crime lived at home, was mentally disabled and was thirteen years old.  That day two older boys convinced Joe to participate in a burglary.  That morning the boys took money and jewelry then left the female victim’s house.  Later that afternoon Ms. Bruner was sexually assaulted but never saw her attacker.  One of the two older boys accused Joe Sullivan of the rape, which he denies, and the evidence against him is flimsy, at best.  The two older boys received shorter sentences and Joe Sullivan’s trial was held in adult court before a six person jury and lasted one day.  At age 16 Terrance Graham committed the only offenses for which he has ever been convicted.  He was an accomplice to an armed burglary and attempted armed robbery of a restaurant.  Graham pled guilty to these offenses stemming from this single incident, and as part of a subsequent probation violation he committed as a juvenile, he was sentenced to the statutory maximum penalty.  While these crimes are serious and merit appropriate punishment, they absolutely do not merit life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Minors are recognized under all social conditions as persons who are not yet fully developed mentally, psychologically, or physically.  To condemn them to life in prison is cruel, unusual and extreme punishment for these or any other crimes.  The cruelty and inappropriateness of such sentencing is recognized throughout the world, and has been codified in human rights declarations for decades.  Please Note:  Joe Sullivan is one of only two 13 year olds who have received life without parole sentences for crimes which the victim did not die.  Both of these sentences were imposed in Florida.