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Treating Children as Children

Blog by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan

By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator 

October is Youth Justice Action Month, a national observance underscoring the need for equity in the juvenile justice system and for centering directly impacted youth and their families to advance youth justice. OJJDP is committed to transforming the juvenile justice system to promote the welfare of all youth. Three priorities guide our work: 1) Treat children as children. 2) Serve children at home, with their families and in their communities. 3) Open up opportunities for system-involved youth. My blog posts during Youth Justice Action Month will focus on these priorities and how OJJDP is working to achieve them. The following post focuses on the first priority, Treating children as children.

OJJDP’s vision statement describes our commitment to building “a nation where all children are free from crime and violence” and where youth contact with the justice system should be “rare, fair, and beneficial.” I take those three adjectives—rare, fair, and beneficial—very seriously. Youth contact with the justice system is neither fair nor beneficial if that system fails to treat them as children.

One of my three top priorities as OJJDP administrator is to ensure that we treat America’s children as children, respecting their needs and ensuring they receive developmentally appropriate services. This begins with ensuring that young people who break the law are processed in the juvenile justice system—not adult criminal court. Youth charged as adults are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who spent time in the juvenile justice system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Funneling youth into the adult system also exacerbates racial disparities. Studies show that youth of color are more likely than white youth to be prosecuted in adult criminal court and placed in adult jails and prisons, even when charged with similar offenses.

This country still houses thousands of children under the age of 18 in adult jails and prisons. An adult-centered approach is not appropriate for children. Locked up with adults, children don’t get age-appropriate care, therapy, and educational and vocational training. Youth in adult facilities are also held in solitary confinement and suffer physical and sexual abuse at higher rates than their peers in youth facilities, leaving them with lasting trauma. Too many young people never develop the decision-making skills they need to move forward in life.

Scientific research shows that most brains are not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s, and that younger youth are prone to impulsive, emotional, and risk-taking behaviors. Research also tells us that young, developing brains are capable of change, and that most youth age out of delinquent behavior naturally as they mature. It is our job to provide opportunities, support, and services that guide them toward positive choices and change.

In addition to keeping kids out of adult courts, jails, and prisons, another level of our work is to ensure that kids in the juvenile justice system are treated as kids. Facets of the juvenile justice system mirror the adult criminal justice system; children should not be subjected to solitary confinement, shackling, and abuse. We have a ways to go to ensure that each state’s juvenile justice system follows research and uses the developmentally appropriate approaches that work best with children.

OJJDP funds many programs that support and protect children. They include the following

  • Programs to provide and train defense attorneys and prosecutors who work with youth. Explaining complex legal concepts and procedures to a young person takes specialized skill, and youth without adequate counsel are more likely to be incarcerated and sent to adult courts and facilities.
  • Mentoring programs that introduce youth to meaningful, lasting relationships with responsible adults. Mentoring has been shown to foster youth self-esteem, academic achievement, and peer relationships.

It’s clear that relegating children to the adult criminal justice system and housing them in adult jails and prisons causes lasting harm. The only way forward—the way supported by research—is to hold young people accountable in a developmentally appropriate manner and provide them with opportunities to learn and recover from their mistakes.

As OJJDP Administrator, I pledge to continue to support and promote approaches that treat kids as kids.

Date Published: October 12, 2022