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Children or Adults?

Every year in the United States, about 200,000 young people are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults. What exactly does that mean? It means that these young people don’t have the chance to access the rehabilitative services and supports that they would in juvenile court. It often means that they have a permanent criminal record, which can limit future job opportunities. It means they are exposed to the physical and psychological damage of being incarcerated with people who are older and often stronger than them.

Why do states choose to treat children as adults? The number of youth in adult courts grew in the 1990s as states enacted stricter laws out of fear of a growing juvenile crime wave. By transferring more children to the adult system policymakers thought that this would keep society safer from these juvenile “super-predators.” Studies have shown that this simply doesn’t pan out. Youth sentenced in adult court are 34% more likely to be arrested for another crime than those who are placed in the juvenile court system.

In 2009, over 6,000 Nebraska youth entered the adult criminal justice system, or about a third of all youth arrested in our state. The number of Nebraska youth who enter the adult criminal justice system is much higher than those of many other states, and it’s extremely disproportionate. In 2009, California only transferred around 1,000 youth to the adult system (see CA’s juvenile justice report for more information), and California has more children than Nebraska has people!

Here in Nebraska we allow prosecutors (county attorneys) to decide where to file cases against youth regardless of their age for any serious offense. Once a youth reaches the age of 16 we allow prosecutors to decide where to file a case, no matter how minor the offense. Other states have been moving away from this model and reforming to ensure more children stay in juvenile court, which can provide developmentally appropriate services that chart the course to a successful, productive future.

The impact  of placing youth in the adult system can be devastating. Youth rates of suicide in adult facilities are 36% higher than those in juvenile facilities. The lack of supports, the lack of services, and the impact these decisions have on a youth’s future should not be ignored. With so many youth in our adult criminal justice system, Nebraska has a lot of work to do to protect its children and our state as whole.

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