Less Than Life

In America, minors can’t vote or consume alcohol—but teens as young as 16 can be considered adults in the criminal justice system. Judges and prosecutors can transfer even younger children—some 10 years old—from juvenile court into criminal court.

In most states, a judge decides to try a child as an adult on a prosecutor’s request. In some states, a prosecutor decides and no hearing is required. In over half the states, minors can be transferred from juvenile court to criminal court for any offense, and even more states give criminal courts jurisdiction over certain offenses, like violent crimes or crimes committed by minors with a record of delinquency.

Though the majority of minors condemned as adults end up in juvenile detention centers until they reach adult age, about 4,500 children are being held in adult prisons and jails. A breakdown of the number of U.S. inmates under age 18 by state and year can be viewed here. The Medill Justice Project worked with Julia Greenberger and Kristin Meier, graduate students at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering who created the visualization.

Adult institutions are often not equipped to handle schooling for minors, which increases the likelihood that young prisoners will drop out of school or return to prison after they are released, research shows. In addition, surveys of those incarcerated reveal young inmates face a higher risk of suicide and are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Prisons sometimes resort to placing young inmates into solitary confinement to protect them from adult convicts, but studies show this can exacerbate mental illnesses.

At the turn of the century, it was legal to execute inmates for crimes committed as minors. As new research emerged showing the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which commands judgment, impulse control and reasoning, does not fully develop until a person reaches his or her early twenties, Americans started to question the ethics of executing inmates who had committed crimes as minors. In July 2003, a Pew Research poll showed nearly 60 percent of Americans opposed such executions.

Two years later, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute inmates for crimes they committed before the age of 18, and in the court opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited a “national consensus” against the practice. The United States was one of the last countries in the world to ban such executions.

After this ruling, national attention shifted to juvenile life sentences. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile crimes violate the Eighth Amendment that prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. In the court opinion, Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged “children are different,” and the ruling required courts to assess factors like age, home environment, extent of participation in the crime and potential for rehabilitation. As long as these circumstances are considered, however, the ruling does not forbid life sentences, leaving the United States as the only nation in the world that allows minors to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Still, nearly all minors sent to adult prison will be released by their 25th birthday, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report. And many will be back behind bars as studies show minors in adult court reoffend sooner and more frequently than those in juvenile court. Juvenile inmates who have been sentenced to lengthy sentences in adult prisons—sometimes 20 years or longer—but less than life will eventually be released back into society. But theirs is a story that has received little public attention. As such, The Medill Justice Project aims to explore this little understood, opaque corner of the adult criminal justice system.

–Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project