Prison sentences for minors – should they be allowed?

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In the lead-up to Christmas this year, as children and young adults around the world prepare for yet another holiday season with friends and family, tens of thousands of US-based minors will prepare to spend the holidays behind prison walls. Forty-five thousand of them, in fact. It is a sad and daunting reality, and one that truly hits home for those readers with children themselves. Children as young as eight years old are currently incarcerated in youth jails for “crimes” ranging from skipping school, petty theft to running away from home.

It begs the question: why are so many young people still locked up? And considering the proven ineffectiveness of youth incarceration, we do we continue to sit back and allow it?

Alonza Thomas of California was among the first in the state to be tried as an adult, and his story is as telling as any other. The first-time offender was just 15-years-old when he was jailed for 13 years in an adult prison for armed robbery. Since his release, the documentary ‘Stickup Kid’ was released to reveal the journey he underwent throughout his years in prison – which he spent mostly in solitary confinement, mental health treatment facilities and attempting suicide. Since his release, Thomas has survived thanks to the plethora of medication he takes for anxiety, depression and psychosis. One could safely say that for Thomas, prison was not the answer. His story is remarkably similar to most other minors who spend time in prison: many of whom have similarly led complicated and chaotic lives. Most have experienced trauma of some kind, abuse, grown up in a foster family or in an unconventional setting, experienced drug or alcohol problems and suffered personality disorders or mental health problems. Prison is not the answer for them either, and the stats are telling.

Seven out of 10 children released from prison will reoffend within a year, and more than a third of the young adults who died in prison between 2008 and 2012 were incarcerated as children.

Indeed, the problem with young prisoners is symbolic of a much wider problem: the general failure of the criminal justice system in the United States, which continues to contribute to its cultural decline, see the breakdown of traditional family units and overwhelm the country’s public assistance programs. A 2002 federal study that tracked adult ex-prisoners found that 67 per cent committed a crime within the three years following their released, and that roughly 1 in 100 US residents today are in prison, burdening the system each and every day and demonstrating the prison system’s innate failure to attack the problem at the root of the cause, as well as its inability to properly support and rehabilitate dysfunctional members of society.

The problem of youth incarceration emanates from a time when society’s understanding of child development, the effects of abuse and neglect on children and learning disabilities was extremely limited, if not non-existent. The solution for children who failed to keep up or who made things difficult was simple: prison. So why is it that in 2018, when our understanding of child psychology, of young persons’ mental development and of the ineffectiveness of prison sentences as a means of “fixing” pathologically broken youths is incredibly advanced, do we continue to abide by these practices?

In the United States of today, we see the most gifted of attorneys and legal specialists practicing in the field: medical malpractice attorneys capable of saving state hospitals from being shut down in the wake of a major surgical error; pro bono celebrity lawyers prepared to put their lives at risk for a cause; you name it. So, why has no one taken up the case against youth incarceration wholeheartedly?

There are pretty brilliant alternatives to prison. From probation to mental health retreats to public shaming, alternatives do exist and are often very much underrated. For drunk driving offenders, being forced to drive around with signs revealing they have been convicted for such crimes has worked wonders, while for minors a simple heart-to-heart chat with convicts has worked a treat, too.

One jail-based programme called the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) sought to prove that men who had previously committed multiple serious and violent crimes would reduce the frequency and severity of their behavior by being held accountable to a set of social, cultural and psychological conditions. The results showed that those who participated in the  RSVP program had lower re-arrest rates (46.3 per cent lower, in fact) and spent less time in custody than those who did not participate, ultimately proving that if prisoners had access to the tools required to improve self-esteem, develop non-violent tools, feel empathy and amend the injuries they had inflicted on others, they would not reoffend. Rehabilitation has also been proven to work effectively for youth, since young people are so influential.  For minors with access to the right kind of therapy and education – especially those who attain a college degree while in prison, which has been 100 per cent proven to reduce the likelihood of re-offending – the outcomes are extremely positive.

While the number of minors imprisoned in the US in recent years has decreased dramatically, far too many remain incarcerated and therefore unable to contribute to society, grow up in their family home and receive a suitable education. It’s time we change that narrative.

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