I spend my Wednesday afternoons at State Correctional Institution-Graterford, a maximum-security prison about an hour away from Temple by car. Here, 10 inmates and the 10 students in my Death and Dying class join together in an Inside-Out course designed to foster transformative learning experiences between people who are incarcerated and those who are not.
Through this class, I have been able to see our country’s alarming mass incarceration problem up close. The United States imprisons more people than any other developed country in the world, according to the World Prison Brief.
Many of my fellow classmates are at least 40 years old and have been incarcerated since their early 20s. In 2010, the U.S. prison population for people ages 18-24 was 400,000 people. The failure to understand criminal motivation and adolescent development has resulted in a failure to rehabilitate these young adults.
The goal of prison should be rehabilitation, not punishment. And because adolescents in particular are vulnerable to making poor decisions due to the underdevelopment of their prefrontal cortex, those who are incarcerated should not spend an extraordinary amount of time paying the price. By shortening sentencing for minors and raising the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, the nation can better rehabilitate young offenders and return them to society as productive members.
It was only five years ago that the Supreme Court ruled that an automatic life sentence without parole for children 17 years old and younger is unconstitutional. In January 2016, this began to be applied retroactively to those who were sentenced to life without parole as minors — Philadelphia is home to about 300 people sentenced this way.
“The next issue on the horizon is what to do in the instance of individuals between 18 and 21,” said psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, who worked on this case.
Now, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is 17 years old and is as low as 15 in some states. Anyone older than their states defined age is automatically tried as an adult in criminal court.
It would benefit the U.S. — and the many young people currently incarcerated — to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to at least 21 years old.
“Adolescents are less able [than adults] to make thoughtful decisions about things,” Steinberg said. “They are more impulsive and are less likely to think about the cost of their decisions. The brain and psychological science suggest that some of these brain systems are still developing into a person’s 20s.”
Though this country treats 18-year-olds as adults in regards to voting and enlisting in the army, they are still not allowed to drink until 21. The rationale for this is the detrimental effect alcohol consumption has on brain development. The prefrontal cortex does not completely finish developing until a person is 25. This area of the brain is concerned with rational thinking and long-term judgment.
When it comes to those who are currently counted as minors by the justice system, only violent offenders, like those who commit rape or murder, should be tried in criminal court as an adult.
“It is imprudent to judge what the rest of somebody’s life will be like on the basis of what they did when they were 16 or 17 years old,” Steinberg said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that minors tried as adults in criminal court were 34 percent more likely to reoffend than those retained in an age-appropriate procedure.
Instead of developing effective rehabilitation programs, the U.S. opts for punishment and stains the records of convicted women and men whose criminal actions are largely a product of their age, health, and environment.
Incarcerated persons — prior to their incarceration — had an income 41 percent less than non-incarcerated persons, and 68 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons did not receive a high school diploma.
Conviction in criminal court results in an adult criminal record. This often means difficulty finding employment after release. The person might also be barred from receiving financial aid or receive limited funding to pursue higher-level education.
Incarcerating a minor can cost $148,767 per year, according to the Justice Policy Institute. We can better allocate these resources to sentence youth to age-appropriate programs and facilities with intensive behavior therapy programs designed to prepare them for release and entrance into the workforce or return to school. Studies indicate two-thirds of male and three-quarters of female juvenile offenders experience a mental illness. By sentencing juveniles to intensive therapy programs instead of typical incarceration, we may be able to treat the underlying issues of their criminality.
The justice system should not rip adolescents away from their childhood or formative years, especially when environmental and health factors often shape their criminal behavior. It is our duty as a nation to help rehabilitate young offenders so they can contribute to society upon release.
Raising the age of juvenile court and reallocating current resources is an efficient and cost-effective way to reduce this country’s juvenile incarceration rate.
Zachary Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.