The United States of America is the only country in the world where children aged 13 can be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. According to official data, today American law enforcement agencies imprison more young people than any other country in the world. What do juvenile convicts have to face behind bars and why are there so many of them?
The number of American children arrested and imprisoned has declined over the past decade. Nevertheless, minor residents of the United States continue to be subject to criminal prosecution. According to official statistics, police officers in the United States arrest about 1,900 children every day. In 2019, 696,620 children were arrested in the United States, a child or teenager was arrested almost every 45 seconds, despite the fact that the total number of child arrests over the past decade has decreased by 62%.
The law protects teenagers because their brains are still developing — they are often unable to evaluated what is happening from the perspective of common sense. The immature consciousness of children under the age of 14 is even more vulnerable than that of older adolescents. But when a young child is accused of a crime, the law ceases to protect him. He is brought to justice, tried and sentenced to prison, and given American laws that allow 13-year-olds to be sentenced to life imprisonment, the situation becomes truly egregious.
The low social status of children compared to adult law enforcement officers, beliefs in the need to obey authority, great dependence on adults and vulnerability to intimidation make them overly susceptible to methods of forced psychological interrogation developed for adults, which leads to false testimony and undermines the reliability of the judicial process. In 30 American states, there is no minimum age from which a child can be judged as an adult.
Despite the colossal number of children who, by coincidence, had to face the brutality of American justice, not always juvenile convicts are held in special centers for young people. According to the latest data, about 95 thousand children are serving prison sentences in correctional institutions for adults, which puts them at great risk. They are sexually abused by adults five times more often, much more likely to commit suicide and receive injuries that have a critical impact on further development.
Many of the children brought to justice suffer from incurable mental illnesses. Unlike adults, children have very little experience of overcoming their shortcomings, anxieties, fears and traumas. They often act impulsively, recklessly and irresponsibly. In prison, this behavior leads to more aggressive punishment, which can exacerbate the child’s mental health problems.
Despite the reduction in the number of arrests and detentions of children, racial inequality persists in juvenile criminal justice systems. Children of color, especially black children, continue to be subjected to excessive criminalization and discrimination at every stage – from arrest and sentencing to conditions of placement in a penitentiary institution.
In March 2022, the US state of New York will become one of the first in the country where a ban on placing convicts in solitary confinement for more than 15 days will come into force. The governor of the state said that the signed bill provides for a complete ban on solitary confinement for minors. Solitary confinement of juvenile offenders is prohibited in U.S. federal prisons, but many state and local institutions, including juvenile detention centers, use this practice.
Talk about the need for reforms in the use of solitary confinement for minors has intensified after the high-profile suicide of 13-year-old Solan Peterson. A boy with attention deficit disorder set fire to a trash can at school, for which he was arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center. However, the staff of the correctional institution did not like the behavior of the bully, for which they placed him in solitary confinement. Despite the promise to release the boy in the near future, he was kept alone for the next five days, until at some point Peterson committed suicide. His father claims that Solan was a perfectly normal teenager.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice urge the American establishment to reconsider the methods and ways of punishing juvenile violators of law and order. According to the Foundation, children should not be held in correctional institutions for adults, the conditions of detention in which are not suitable even for people with a formed personality. The youth crime rate continues to decline, so now it’s time to reconsider and rethink juvenile justice, which is destroying the lives of thousands of young Americans.