When a juvenile commits a crime, state and federal courts are more reluctant to deliver heavy-handed sentences that will impact them for life—even when the crime is murder. The United States Supreme Court has held that sentences mandating life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. Despite the laws that prohibit aggressive and harsh sentences for juveniles, American rates of incarceration are still significantly higher than other industrialized nations. According to reports, the U.S. spends more per year on incarcerating juveniles than it does on education.
Analysts of the juvenile justice system have pointed out that for most offenders, incarceration is not a way to get kids “back on track,” but often makes their problems worse, setting them off into an adulthood of more serious crimes and self-destructive behaviors. Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys are committed to protecting the rights of juvenile defendants and to raising awareness of legal issues that may impact the lives of those accused of crimes. Juvenile and adult defendants will benefit from experienced legal advocacy when navigating the Alabama criminal justice system.
According Nell Bernstein, author of the new book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, the greatest predictor that a juvenile offender would be a criminal in the future was if he or she was incarcerated at a juvenile facility. This factor outweighed all other risks, including gang involvement, child abuse, or education. During an author interview with NPR, the author argued that even states where they have tried to reform juvenile detention facilities, young offenders who are locked up are negatively impacted and shaped by their experiences.
Juveniles are often arrested and charged with low-level offenses including shoplifting, loitering, truancy or other property crimes. Forty-percent of juveniles in state facilities are individuals who have been convicted of low-level offenses. An analysis of juvenile detention facilities shows that only a quarter of offenders have been convicted of a violent crime, including rape, assault, or robbery.
Once in juvenile detention facilities, some of the offenders have gone through additional traumatic experiences. Some juvenile facilities will actually face litigation over what these young people suffer while behind bars. Statistics show that at least 12% of juveniles have suffered sexual abuse while behind bars. There are also high statistics of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, making it 5 times more likely that an African American teen goes to jail if he commits the same crime as a white kid.
There are alternatives to juvenile incarceration, including assigning caseworkers to juveniles or small community run homes, rather than state facilities. The programs, according to researchers, have a higher success rate and are used in jurisdictions around the country, though only for a handful of offenders. If juveniles were not forced directly into the state facility system, they could have additional opportunities to move past their mistakes. Juveniles and parents who are dealing with the criminal justice system should consult with an advocate as soon as possible. There are potential ways to reduce charges and penalties with strategic legal counsel and advocacy.