Children in prison

schoolsnotprisons-meme-3-kidsBY POLLY MANN

There has been no media attention given to the after-life of President Obama once he leaves the White House.  My hope is that he will continue to make criminal justice a big part of that life, especially the part of the criminal justice system that deals with young offenders. He could begin by consulting  the American Civil Liberties Union, which has this to say about the use of adult prisons for child offenders:  “The adult system is not designed in any way, shape or form to treat children, to rehabilitate children, or to recognize that children are different than adults.”  And if an institution itself can be labeled “racist,” this is certainly true of the criminal justice system, where one national study found that in a single year almost 10 times more black kids were committed to adult facilities than white kids.  Of 257 children prosecuted as adults in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, only one was white.
The decision regarding the designation of an inmate as a child is left up to the judge who sentences him/her and the prosecutor.  So often this choice is a matter of personal biases. In nine states 17-year-olds are automatically charged as adults.  This selection of adult or juvenile prison affects the prognosis of the young offender.  One study that tracked the lives of children released from prisons showed that those who had served time in adult systems were 77% more likely to be arrested for a violent felony than those who had been sent to juvenile institutions.
One particular practice used in penitentiaries, extraction, is especially disturbing.  It is supposed to be a last resort, for example, when a prisoner is attempting suicide.  Beginning in the 1970s  prisons began training tactical teams—usually three to five officers equipped with tasers or electric shields—to respond to emergencies. Too often these confrontations are used to deal with minor infractions.
There is increasing research showing that when adolescents  suffer from extreme stress and trauma, it can inflict permanent damage on their bodies and brains.  One study found that children who experienced multiple forms of trauma, such as physical and sexual abuse, had a life expectancy 20 years shorter than their counterparts. Juvenile justice experts say a better way to handle misbehavior is through a positive incentive program where children lose points if they act out.  A facility also needs trained    staff and on-call mental    health workers.  The incidence of rape is also a problem.     The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, is supposed to protect minors from such situations, but it is an ongoing problem.
Changing the treatment of children in prison means more than changing the location of their housing or the schedule for their showers.  It also means changing the culture, and it is a daunting task, which needs far more attention.

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