Can You go to Prison if You Are Under 18?

The Netflix smash hit The End of the F****ing World follows British 17 year-olds Alyssa and James as they try to outrun the police after James murders a man who attempted to sexually assault Alyssa. This leads to an exciting plot filled with romance, mystery, and dark comedy that ends with a climactic bang! (Literally).

Why were James and Alyssa so afraid? What if their crime had occurred in the United States? Can minors be sent to jail?

Can Minors Be Incarcerated?

The short answer: yes.

The longer answer, however, is a little more complicated.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s website, nearly sixty thousand youth are sent to juvenile prisons in the United States each day. In statistics from 2013, South Dakota was identified as the state with the most youth in prisons, with 0.49% of its youth behind bars.

Nearly 89% of youth are incarcerated in locked juvenile detention centers, 62% of which report using “mechanical restraints” such as handcuffs. Nearly 50% of long-term secure facilities isolate youth in solitary confinement for four hours or more. 1 in 10 incarcerated youth are held in adult detention centers, where fewer age-appropriate services are available to them.

Being placed in juvenile detention centers isn’t just for hard crime, as we often think. For about one fourth of all youth in juvenile detention centers, their offense was a technical violation (18%) or a status offense (5%), which includes not reporting to their probation office, failing to complete community service, truancy, running away, violating curfew or for being “ungovernable”.

Minors Placed in Adult Prisons

Every day in the United States, about four thousand five hundred children are housed in adult prisons. These children are nine times more likely to commit suicide than children in juveline facilities. A majority of states allow children to be incarcerated in adult prisons, where they are at a higher risk of being sexuality assaulted. Some states require separation of children to protect them, but this often leads to children being placed in solitary confinement.

Thirteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. These states are Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Children as young as eight in these states have been prosecuted for violent crimes as an adult.

Joe Sullivan was a mentally disabled thirteen year old who, in 1989, was convinced to participate in a burglary by two older boys. The three boys entered an empty home and one of the older boys took some money and jewelry. The elderly homeowner was later sexually assaulted by an assailant that she didn’t see. The two older boys accused Sullivan of sexual assault. He was tried in an adult court by a six-person jury in a one-day proceeding. He was convicted and sent to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Unfortunately, many more stories like his exist.

Life for Minors in Adult Prisons

According to a 2006 study by the Justice Policy Institute, children placed in adult prisons have exacerbated mental illness, increased odds of recidivism, less of a chance of returning to school and a lower ability to obtain a job in the labor market. Youth held with adults are at the highest risk of sexual abuse and are about 36% more likley to commit suicide than youth held in juvenile facilities.

Many states employ what’s known as a “sight and sound” separation to keep children from adults. Under this law, children cannot be housed next to adults, share dining halls, recreation areas, or any other common spaces with adults, or be placed in any circumstance that could lead to contact with adult offenders. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice says this is for their own good, “…to prevent children from threats, intimidation, or other forms of psychological abuse and physical assault.”

However, this separation often ends up doing more harm than good, as it leads to isolation and the minors are often placed in solitary confinement, which has been proven to do almost irreversible psychological damage. Additionally, this law only applies to juveniles who were tried as children. Those who were tried as adults, despite still being minors, aren’t protected by this act and are therefore still in danger.

Unfortunately, this can have devastating consequences for children such as 16 year old Rodney Hulin, who was tried and convicted as an adult at sixteen years old after setting a Texas dumpster on fire, causing less than $500 in property damage.

Almost as soon as he was admitted, Hulin was sexually assaulted by another prisoner. After reciveing medical treatment, he was placed back in the same unit, where he continued to be beaten, raped, and forced to perform oral sex on other inmates.

One letter he wrote to a prison official reads: “I’m afraid to go to sleep, to shower or just about anything else. I am afraid that when I am doing these things, I might die at any time. Please, sir, help me.” He received no help and committed suicide after just seventy-five days in prision.

Should children be held accountable for their crimes? Yes, of course. However, treating children as adults is not only foolish, but harmful to their psyche. Instead of holding these children in a cage, we need to focus on reeducation, socialization, and mental health care to address the issues at hand and ensure that children who are incarcerated end up as functioning adults who are educated and can find work, instead of people who commit violent crimes over and over again, end up homeless, or end up hanging from the ceiling of their jail cell at just sixteen years old.


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