“We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight - only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too.” –Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has prompted me to recognize the injustices and horrors of the ironically-titled criminal “justice” system. After reading this book, I have come to believe that the practice of prosecuting minors as adults and placing them in adult prisons is cruel and unjustifiable, and that it should be prohibited.
Often, the minors that are confined in adult prisons come from an environment in which abject poverty, poor schools, neglect, abandonment, and physical/sexual abuse are the norm. Neurological research demonstrates that the teenage brain is not fully developed, especially with regard to emotional regulation and impulse control. As a result, compared to adults, minors are more susceptible to peer pressure and are more likely to make rash decisions. Unfortunately, the dire circumstances from which these vulnerable minors come can make the consequences of such impulsiveness devastating or even deadly.
There are myriad problems with placing minors in adult prisons. Adult prisons often lack educational, vocational, rehabilitative, and psychological services that are necessary to prepare minors to survive in society once they are released from prison. Even more concerning, the likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault is five times higher in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities. Often, to protect minors from this violence, they are locked in solitary confinement (cramped, windowless cells) for 23 hours a day. As a result of these conditions, minors confined in adult jails or prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than minors housed in juvenile correctional facilities.
Incarcerating minors in adult prisons is not only detrimental to the minors themselves, but it is also harmful to society in general. Due to the lack of educational and supportive programs in adult prisons, these individuals are unprepared to become productive, contributing members of society upon release, and consequently, their recidivism rate is 34% higher than that of minors who serve time in the juvenile system.
Just Mercy opened my eyes to a problem that I didn’t know existed. It inspired me to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. In addition, I now regularly read articles regarding prison reform. I now strive to educate myself on this issue, as I feel that I have an ethical obligation to use my voice to speak for some of our society’s most vulnerable children. I have attended film screenings and discussion sessions hosted by my church to discuss the issue of prison reform. I use social media to spread to word about the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization founded by Bryan Stevenson) and its amazing accomplishments.
Our society cannot continue to lock up broken and vulnerable children. We must no longer walk away from them or hide them from our sight.