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Study Finds 3% of US Prisoners Are Doing Time for Crimes Committed as Children

by Jordan Arizmendi

Children prosecuted as adults have sadly been ignored by criminal justice reform. On May 9, 2023, a new study was released by the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids that put the problem in context. Abstracting data from 45 states, the group found that 32,359 prisoners – about 3% of America’s entire prison population – is behind bars for a crime committed when they were kids.

This distinct slice of the incarcerated population is often ignored in justice reform. Advocates usually look to the adult prison population or the juvenile prison population, leaving out adults charged when they were children. Meanwhile, the number of children in juvenile facilities has gone down, year after year, not because they are released, but rather, they are just transferred to the adult prison justice system.

The study says that changing the way that children are treated in the adult justice system would thereby improve the justice system for all. In addition, by examining only the children subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system, a good chunk of the problem is ignored.

Human Rights for Kids developed 12 policy reforms to address human rights violations currently observed in the justice system, including raising the minimum age of transfer from juvenile to adult criminal systems to 16 and prohibiting the transfer of children 15 and younger; ensuring that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes have transfer petitions heard by a juvenile court judge; retroactively resentencing young children previously transferred and tried as adults; considering child-status when sentencing children as adults; restoring judicial discretion lost to “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws when sentencing children; retroactively resentencing anyone incarcerated for crimes committed as children; providing a release “safety valve”; and requiring mandatory data collection and transparency.

Policy reforms directed to state governors and the President include executive clemency and/or pardons for people who committed crimes when they were children; directing parole authorities to prioritize expedited review of those who committed crimes as children; ensuring extensive consideration is given at sentencing hearings to youthful immaturity, trauma history and/or developmental differences between adults and children; banning by Executive Order the placement of children under 18 into adult correctional facilities; and conducting annual accounting on everyone incarcerated for crimes committed as children. See: Crimes Against Humanity: The Mass Incarceration of Children in the United States, Human Rights for Kids (2023).

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