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John Whitehead's Commentary

The Tragedy of Locking Up Children in Adult Prisons

John Whitehead

Anthony Laster is mentally disabled. When he was 15 years old, he was incarcerated in an adult prison. After stealing $2 from a classmate for food, Anthony was tried as an adult and charged with strong-arm robbery and extortion, which is punishable by 30 years in prison.

Anthony was then confined in a prison populated with hardened, adult male criminals. Thankfully, prosecutors have now dropped the charges against him. Unfortunately, Anthony is not alone. As states become more concerned about juvenile crime, many of them are taking what they call a "tough love" approach, crafting laws that allow the justice system to treat minors as adults.

But this kind of tough love will not work. Instead of rehabilitating juvenile offenders and returning them to society as solid citizens, it will no doubt turn impressionable children into hardened adults, scarred by the daily fights for survival that make up life in prison.

But that hasn't stopped states from condemning children to adult facilities. From 1985 to 1997, the number of juveniles in adult prisons more than doubled. According to a study conducted by the Department of Justice, five percent of all juvenile convicts are now spending their days in adult prisons. This means that 7,400 of America's children are inmates in adult facilities.

In Kansas alone, one estimate predicts that 166 juvenile offenders will be incarcerated in adult prisons by 2009, with another 628 eligible for transfer from juvenile centers to adult correctional facilities. Many of these kids are not a violent danger to society. In fact, 22 percent of the minors in adult prisons are serving time for property crimes, with another 11 percent in adult prisons for drug-related offenses.

Why are there so many children in adult correctional facilities? One reason is that all 50 states allow juvenile judges to waive cases up to adult criminal courts. In Texas, for example, juveniles can be tried as adults at the tender age of 14.

Other states set the limit even younger, while some do not even have a minimum age. And in some states, it is the prosecutor--not the judge--who decides whether to try a youth offender in adult court.

Inevitably, mixing kids with adult criminals leads to tragedy. In one instance, a teenage boy incarcerated for not paying speeding tickets was tortured and murdered by adult prisoners. In Texas, a teenage boy in an adult prison was repeatedly raped and abused. He wrote to his father, told him that he could no longer deal with the misery and then hanged himself in his cell. In 1994, 45 other children joined him, meeting their deaths in adult prisons.

Given these tragedies, it would seem that there must be a very good reason for states to sentence juveniles to time in adult prisons. But any justification is hard to find. Since 1995, juvenile crime rates have fallen. And from 1992 to 1998, the juvenile murder arrest rate decreased by 50 percent.

Supporters of these tough measures point to these dips as proof that the methods are working. "Since those tough love measures have been placed in effect, the juvenile arrest rate has been going down steadily," said Mike Jones, a spokesman for Governor George W. Bush of Texas, who signed the bill permitting 14-year-olds to be tried as adults.

But proving a link between sending 14-year-olds to adult prisons and a gigantic decrease in juvenile murder arrests is virtually impossible. And just as capital punishment has never been shown to deter murders, locking children up with hardened criminals won't prevent other kids from stealing cars or using drugs.

The tragic reality is that a child who shares a cellblock with adult criminals--many of them repeat offenders--will not learn how to be a productive citizen. Instead, he'll learn how to be a more successful thief, drug-pusher or worse. And that's assuming he isn't raped, beaten or murdered along the way.

It's time for Americans to realize that the key to juvenile justice is creating responsible adults. But sending children into adult prisons cannot accomplish this. There is simply no way for a kid who spends his days looking over his shoulder to spend any time looking ahead into his future.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president The Rutherford Institute. His books Battlefield America: The War on the American People and A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State are available at He can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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