Every year in the United States, nearly 250,000 youths are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults.
Though the age limit for juvenile court varies from state to state, the cutoff age in most jurisdictions is 18. Frankie Guzman, a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law who directs its California Youth Justice Initiative and who was incarcerated himself as a youth, calls this cutoff “arbitrary,” because the adolescent brain continues to develop well into one’s 20s.
“It is immoral and unethical to incarcerate children — especially in a system that offers very little in the way of developmentally appropriate services,” said Guzman at a recent workshop of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, organized by the Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity. The workshop examined the effects of involvement with the juvenile justice system on the health and well-being of adolescents, families, and communities of color.
“Young people are detained by the juvenile justice systems when other systems fail,” said Linda Teplin, director of the health disparities and public policy program at Northwestern University. Evidence also shows that the majority of kids who are in youth detention have experienced trauma and other behavioral health issues, and that punishment-based systems don’t necessarily work to rehabilitate them.
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