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They Say: Don't Treat Kids Like Felons

juvenile-justiceAs a mother argues that it won’t do any good to “throw away” her son, who’s accused of setting fire to another boy, a New York Times editorial is arguing for the de-criminalization of juveniles.

Specifically, the writer calls for the re-authorization of the 1974 Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, which grants states federal money to be used for humanizing the juvenile justice system.

Congress is currently considering an updated version of the bill, which would encourage states not to house juveniles in adult facilities while awaiting trial; to deal with minor offenses, such as smoking, through counseling rather than detention; and to address racial inequalities in sentencing and treatment (currently, black and Latino children are treated more harshly than other children).

The bill also calls for increased spending on delinquency prevention programs, such as mental health and drug abuse services for youth.

The editorial argues that the bill should also make it illegal to sentence juveniles to adult jails, which “places them at risk of being raped or battered and increases the chance they will end up as career criminals.” But the writer allows that an exception could be made for “truly heinous criminals.”

This caveat could be a slippery slope. What qualifies as “truly heinous?” If the point of the law is to acknowledge a fundamental difference between child criminals and adult criminals, that line should remain firm.

Violent juvenile criminals should not be housed with milder offenders, but the humane, commonsense thinking behind such a law–that teenagers have less capacity for reasoning and more capacity for rehabilitation than adult criminals–must be respected in every case if it’s going to be respected at all.

Photo: Southern Poverty Law Center

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