Sarah Ford | October 24, 2013

National Youth Justice Awareness Month

Southern Poverty Law CenterOctober is National Youth Justice Awareness Month – a time when the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Campaign for Youth Justice and our allies host community events that expose the devastating consequences of children being sent to adult courts, jails and prisons.

Across the country, thousands of children are languishing in abusive prisons and jails. These youths are disproportionately African American and Latino. Most live in poverty.  

Many of these children were needlessly pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system. But schools are just one entry point to the juvenile justice system – a system that too frequently cuts short the life chances of the young people it’s supposed to serve. Many youths are criminalized because of their experiences with failing foster care and mental health systems. Children and teens of color are imprisoned at almost three times the rate of their white counterparts – suggesting that they are often unfairly targeted for arrest and confinement. 

Southern Poverty Law Center

Once arrested, children can stay in detention facilities for weeks or months before a judge hears their case. They often encounter abuse and neglect in overcrowded, squalid facilities – some operated for profit by private corporations. Few local juvenile detention centers have the resources to meet their educational, medical and mental health needs.

When a judge hears their case, court-involved youths may be sentenced to a juvenile prison where they frequently endure brutal conditions. The SPLC has helped to expose instances of physical and sexual abuse, shackling of children and inadequate mental health care. 

Today, an estimated 100,000 children and teens are locked up in juvenile facilities across the country, and thousands more are incarcerated in adult prisons. Children in adult prisons and jails face even worse conditions than those in the juvenile justice system. 

U.S. Department of Justice research shows that youths incarcerated with adults are eight times more likely to commit suicide than in juvenile facilities, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, three times more likely to be assaulted by prison staff and 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon than youths in a juvenile facility. And incarcerating children in the adult system doesn’t only put them at risk of unspeakable abuses – it fails to protect communities. The Department of Justice also has found “higher recidivism rates among juveniles convicted for violent offense in criminal court when compared with similar offenders retained in juvenile court.”  

By reforming the juvenile justice system and providing support in our schools and communities, this cycle can be broken and we can dramatically reduce our country’s prison population – the world’s largest. 

The SPLC uses legal action, community education and mobilization, and media and legislative advocacy to ensure that students get the educational services that can mean the difference between incarceration and graduation and to prevent school discipline practices from pushing students out of school. We work to replace unnecessary juvenile detention with proven, community-based alternatives. And we seek to protect imprisoned children and teens from abuse and safely reduce the number of imprisoned children. 

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