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A new study released by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin illustrates once again the punitiveness that remains an essential feature of American society. The title of the study is From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System.” To see the complete study go to the following web site: http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/news/images/file/From%20Time%20Out%20to%20Hard%20Time-revised%20final.pdf.

The study began when the University of Texas Law School Supreme Court Clinic agreed to represent Christopher Pittman, a 12-year old boy who had killed his grandparents, was tried as an adult and given a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years without possibility of parole. The Clinic undertook a comprehensive research project involving law students and graduate students.

The 134 page document is worthy of a careful review. It contains the most up-to-date literature and facts from a variety of sources, along with excellent graphics. Among the key findings include the following:

  • In more than half the states it is legal for children under age 12 to be treated as adults. In 22 states plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court.
  • In many states a child charged with a crime in adult court may be held in an adult jail while awaiting trial and may be sent to an adult prison upon conviction. On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons.
  • The United States stands almost alone in the world in the punitiveness toward children. The researchers found no instances where countries handed down 20 and 30 year sentences for children under 13.
  • Research clearly shows that treating children this young in the adult system creates nothing positive — either for the neither children nor public safety.
  • While judges in the adult system often have little discretion in sentencing children, those in the juvenile court system have many different options. Juvenile courts are fully capable of handling even the most serious young offenders.
  • Taxpayers save money by treating children within the juvenile justice system (one researcher found that $3 was saved for every dollar spent on the juvenile system.

The researchers give a number of specific policy recommendations that should be given serious consideration by policy makers. It is time for the United States to cease being mired in 19th century thinking and move into the 21st century. This report shows why.