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According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “[C]riminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.” Based on international norms and the differences between youth and adults, the Court has concluded on multiple occasions that certain sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on youth.

Adults are no less deserving of rehabilitation than youth, but because youth are, generally speaking, still undergoing various developmental processes, they are well-suited to learn how to address their challenges, provided they are supported. Importantly, adverse childhood experiences” have been shown to have a critical impact on development. Also, youth are often more susceptible to undue influence than adults are. These differences, in conjunction with youth’s limited rights (e.g., an inability to vote) and resources, make it especially challenging for young people to address trauma-related causes of crime and to extricate themselves from turbulent environments.

Daniel Arauz | flickr creative commons

Ignoring such differences and environmental factors when applying criminal laws leads to societal problems, including increased rates of incarceration, crime, and false confessions resulting in wrongful convictions. The purpose of juvenile court is rehabilitation, while, unfortunately, the current primary objective of adult court is punishment. Therefore, there is a broader range of placements and rehabilitative programming available under juvenile jurisdiction. It is then not surprising that youth who are prosecuted as adults reoffend at higher rates, especially for violent offenses, than similarly situated youth who are prosecuted in juvenile court for the same charges. Moreover, juvenile incarceration has been shown to increase recidivism and be one of the best predictors of adult incarceration.

While it is possible for youth in juvenile court to be placed at a California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facility for serious offenses, many youth who have adjudications for such crimes can be diverted to residential treatment centers and other community-based alternatives to incarceration. Such settings are more conducive to treatment and delivery of services for high needs youth.

Incarceration is essentially inevitable for youth convicted as adults in California for similarly serious charges. For example, of the 597 youth tried as adults last year in California, 88 percent were convicted, and 65 percent of those convicted were sentenced to state prison. An additional 30 percent of those convicted served time in jail, leaving only 5 percent who were not sentenced to an adult institution. Also, prosecutorial direct file comprised 80 percent of all youth tried as adults last year in California. Because judges are not involved in the direct file process, it is not thorough or impartial, and it forecloses any meaningful opportunity for youth to avoid incarceration.

Moreover, an adult record causes particularly harsh and long-lasting collateral consequences — compounding cycles of economic instability and incarceration. For example, individuals who serve time in state prison have limited access to the record-cleaning remedies available for most other justice-involved persons. The more severe collateral consequences that youth tried as adults experience likely contribute to the higher rates of recidivism that we see among this population, as compared to their juvenile court counterparts.

By ending the prosecution of youth as adults, we can reduce juvenile institutionalization and enhance youth’s rehabilitative outcomes, thereby preventing future justice system involvement and stemming the tide of mass incarceration.