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Treating Kids Differently

CC BY-SA 2.0 by Flickr user j.rakkolainen

Kids are different than adults.

On its surface that’s a fairly simple, obvious statement. If you’ve spent any time around children of any age whether they’re cute, tiny babies, precocious preschoolers, or teenagers giving you attitude, you know it’s true. Not only do kids look different than adults, they act differently, and they need different things.

These very simple observations that we all make in our daily life are increasingly being confirmed by scientific research. Kids are still developing. Even a 6-foot-tall, 16-year-old still has plenty of growing and changing left to do. Their brain, especially the part that helps them connect actions and consequences, isn’t fully formed yet, which makes it easier for them to make bad decisions.  It also means that the things we might do to get an adult to change their behavior simply don’t work for kids.

Unfortunately, the way our state treats kids often fails to take their fundamental differences into consideration. This is especially true when it comes to kids who make mistakes and break the law.

Every year, we choose to forget that hundreds of Nebraska kids are kids by putting them into our adult criminal justice system. Although they are all eligible to have their cases heard in juvenile court, created specifically for kids, we end up treating them just like adults. They pay the same fines, they sit the same jails, they serve the same sentences, and in many cases they face the same permanent criminal records which limit their future opportunities.

This isn’t a problem that’s unique to Nebraska. But what is unique about our state is that we are part of a shrinking number of states that haven’t taken action to limit youth involvement in the adult criminal justice system.

A recent report released by the Campaign for Youth Justice highlights the wave of change that is making sure we treat kids differently. Based on the strong research that prosecuting youth as adults isn’t an effective way to improve public safety and that housing them with adults is incredibly dangerous, 23 states have taken legislative action to limit children’s involvement in the adult criminal justice system.

Last year, Nebraska made huge progress on juvenile justice reform. While we should definitely celebrate our state’s investments in building a better system for our kids, we can’t forget that some kids in our state still don’t have the opportunity to access it. Our hope is that the Legislature will keep continue to work towards passing LB 464 this year, which would ensure that all Nebraska youth have the chance to access a system that treats them differently!

Throughout the month of November, Voices for Children will be taking a closer look at the children and youth in Nebraska’s adult criminal justice system. We hope you will keep up with the series on the blog throughout the month.

Share your own thoughts and stories with us in the comments.  Why do you think we should treat kids as kids in the court system?

Thank you to taking the time to share!

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