In a welcome bit of positive news, after years of ”tough-on-crime” legislation that started gaining traction in the 1980s, some states are now passing laws which keep youth offenders out of the adult criminal justice system by curtailing prosecutors’ abilities to try them as adults.
The photo above features James Stewart with his mother and sister Vanessa Miera. James was charged as an adult after a fatal drunken-driving accident, and wound up dying in his jail cell after being placed in an adult facility.
Eleven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, have passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons. Eight states, including California, Missouri and Washington, passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Four — Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Mississippi — have broadened the powers of their juvenile courts, enabling them to take cases of juveniles who would have automatically been tried as adults. And 12 states, including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Utah, have adjusted the laws governing the transfer of young offenders into the adult system in ways that make it more likely that they will be tried as juveniles.
This is a feminist issue: in the last few decades, the number of girls confined to youth prisons has been rising, and the number of women in prison is increasing at nearly double the rate for men; these are disproportionately women of color. Adult facilities are well-documented sites of gendered violence, including sexual assault, horrifying treatment of pregnant and parenting prisoners, and even coercive sterilization. We also know that trans and gender non-conforming folks, including youth and especially people of color, face consistent targeting and violence from the police and criminal (in)justice system.
Of course, youth facilities – which tend to be billed as more rehabilitative - have their own problems. The real solution would be the total abolition of prisons in favor of a system that addresses root causes of criminalized behavior and focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment (learn more about that idea from smart folks like Angela Davis and the amazing people at Justice Now).
Veronica is an immigrant queer writer, domestic artist, and music video enthusiast.