Youth criminals deserve safer environment for rehabilitation

By The Pitt News Editorial Staff

Some crimes are viewed as heinous acts that deserve fitting punishments. When adults commit such crimes, it’s easy to say they should receive the punishment they deserve: jail time in an adult prison. But what about children, teenagers and more broadly — minors — who commit such “adult” crimes?

Should they be housed in adult prisons and jails, although it is clear they are vastly younger than their prison mates? Absolutely not.

Encouragingly, the Campaign for Youth Justice’s recent report found that Pennsylvania and 22 other states have adopted legislation over the past eight years to discourage filing minors through the adult criminal justice system when it isn’t necessary, a move every state should adopt.

According to the report, nearly 100,000 youth in the U.S. are placed in adult jails and prisons each year. This statistic paints a dismal picture for the thousands of young offenders who aren’t afforded the rights of a facility, regardless of the crime, that fosters the sense of growth and rehabilitation youth need to ensure that they have the chance to mend their incriminating pasts.

Adult prisons offer little guidance for youth development and security, simply because adult prisons classify all prison inmates as adults. Furthermore, adult prisons are havens for increased instances of sexual abuse, with young prisoners as prime targets.

An environment such as this doesn’t teach minors to do the right thing. Instead, it fills their minds with the need to constantly protect themselves.

Several research studies conclude that juvenile detention is a counterproductive strategy for those under the age of 19 because it reduces the chance that members of this group will graduate high school. The potential for  repeat offenses to be committed is also much higher.

Our federal and state criminal system should and does incarcerate youth who commit major crimes. The system should also pursue in-jail initiatives to house these youth in proper facilities in a preventative effort to keep incarcerated youth from repeating offenses after their releases.

Pennsylvania joins states such as Maine and Virginia in having passed laws permitting or requiring that youth in adult prisons be placed in juvenile facilities. The crime they committed isn’t overlooked, nor is the security to house these juveniles. Merely, an emphasis is placed on fostering an environment open to teaching the demographic.

Some may argue that an “adult” crime warrants time in an adult prison. But justice is dealt through the court’s sentencing. It is morally wrong to subject mentally and physically immature youth to the same housing standards as adults. It is only right to house the youth in a separate facility until an appropriate transfer to an adult prison at the age of 18.

Laws such as the one that Pennsylvania has enacted provide minors with an education, safety from the heightened occurrences of sexual abuse in adult facilities and a structure that strengthens their mental capacity. These initiatives are necessary to stunt the rising numbers of youth offenders and repeat offenses committed by youth.