T. J. Parsell was 17 years old when he was sentenced as an adult for up to 15 years in prison for robbing a convenience store. On his first night in prison he was drugged and repeatedly raped, only to be coerced into keeping quiet. Released from prison only four years later, Parsell, now a human rights activist, speaks out about how his years as a child caged with grown men left him vulnerable, victimized, and enslaved by the other prisoners. Sadly, his experience is fairly typical of children in adult prisons.
In 48 states, children under the age of 18 are tried in juvenile courts for status offenses, that is breaking the laws that only apply to children, such as drinking alcohol, and delinquency offenses, which are non-violent infractions of the law. However, in North Carolina and New York, this standard is not the norm. Mandatory transfer laws in these states require youth 16 years and older to be automatically tried as adults, regardless of the crime.
While the years between 16 and 18 may seem inconsequential, they are not. Placing a boy or girl under the age of 18 in an adult prison has been proven to have dramatic physical, psychological, and emotional effects.
Established in 1899 by Illinois, the juvenile system is based on the belief that youth are far more malleable in their behaviors because their brains are still developing; the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and consequential thinking has not yet fully formed, making the youth neither as competent nor culpable before the law as an adult.
The U.S. legal system, in order to determine just punishment for offenses, weighs not only the harm caused by the crime but also the culpability of the offender, which is based on one's decision-making capacity, situational circumstances, and potential for repeated offenses. In the same way that it would be unjust to sentence someone with a mental disorder as if he had his full faculties, it is unjust to try minors as adults before they have developed adult-level faculties.
However roughly 50,000 16 and 17 year olds are arrested in North Carolina and New York each year, and thus automatically face the likelihood of prosecution in adult criminal court. Youth are far more likely to be beaten, raped, and abused in adult prison, in addition to sustaining psychological and emotional abuse. They are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult prison than in the juvenile system.
Mandatory transfer laws in New York and North Carolina require that non-violent 16 and 17 year olds automatically be subjected to this environment. It should be a priority for North Carolina and New York to join the rest of the country and raise the age that youth are tried as adults to age 18. This still allows for the judge to waive more severe cases into the criminal court, but 16 and 17 year olds would be tried as youth, sending them instead to an imperfect, yet more age appropriate and ideally rehabilitative, juvenile system.
Why should “raising the age” be a priority for Christians?
When 16 and 17 year olds are sent to adult prisons, we strip them of their inherent dignity and identity. They are still children in many senses of the word. As Christians, we are called to value our children and walk alongside them. When we place our children in adult prisons, we are in many ways forgetting their identity and value as children.
Many people of faith subscribe to the concept of restorative justice- one that is not focused solely on punishment, but on restoring an individual to be able to fully participate and flourish in public life. But adult prisons are not restorative for youth. In fact, approximately 80% of youth released from adult prison go on to commit more serious crimes.
With this in mind, it becomes clear the state governments in both New York and North Carolina should reconsider their policies in light of the principles of public justice.
Citizens in North Carolina and New York can advocate to their state legislators and tell them why their faith motivates them to speak out on this issue. Consider partnering with Raise the Age New York or the Youth Justice Project in North Carolina. While these actions specifically apply to those living within North Carolina and New York, we are all responsible to educate ourselves about the injustices within the United States prison system. Change is birthed from conversations, which lead to action; discussing these injustices in our communities is the first step to bringing about reform.
However, reform requires more than just government action. Churches are in a unique position to serve and minister to youth in their communities, and to youth in prison. Christians compelled by a belief that every human is created in the image of God can advocate for community based alternatives that offer holistic rehabilitation. Staying in close proximity to family and fostering relationships with people outside of the prison walls is a key factor in reducing recidivism.
Christians are commanded to stand up for those who are suffering injustice, and to do so we must take our beliefs into the public arena and speak out for what is right.
While raising the age that minors are prosecuted as adults in North Carolina and New York would be an important step, systematic injustices still reach down to the level of daily practices in the prisons. We must continue to seek change in the juvenile justice system and it is imperative that we continue to advocate for justice for all the youth in our communities.
-Lauren MacDougall is a junior at Covenant College studying International Studies, French, and Economics