February 29, 2012
Leap Day Long Overdue for Children in Conflict with the Law
"Reintegration is not a federal program, it's a community process." Rights & Responsibilities (c) 2007 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Eric Okdeh
What can Leap Year teach us about effective advocacy for kids involved with our court and justice systems?
Every four years, Leap Day is added to the calendar on February 29th because the length of a year is actually 365.242 days, not 365 days. The practice of aligning our annual calendar with scientific knowledge dates back to the days of Julius Caesar. It was Caesar who created the leap year in 45 B.C., based upon the calculations made by his astronomer, Sosigenes. As scientific knowledge grew, the calendar was again adjusted in the 16th century, bringing us the modern Gregorian calendar.
Thousands of years ago, the Romans recognized the need to base policy and practice decisions upon scientific research and knowledge. On this Leap Day, we thought we should take a moment (we have a whole extra day, after all!) to reflect upon the need to consider developmentally appropriate, research-driven solutions for children involved in America's justice system. By taking account of the growing body of science about children's cognitive, social, and emotional development, we can leap substantially ahead in our adoption of progressive juvenile and criminal justice policies.
We are a nation that places a high value on science and progress—we discovered electricity, the telephone, put a man on the moon, developed the microchip, and in 2010 approved 220,000 patents for new ideas.
Yet when it comes to how we treat our children, our policies and practices are too often unaligned with current research. That research, recognized and embraced by the United States Supreme Court on three separate occasions in just the last six years, makes plain that children are not simply miniature adults. Adolescents in particular are immature in their judgment, assess risks and consequences poorly, are highly susceptible to negative peer pressure, and yet also malleable and uniquely capable of rehabilitation and reformation. This combination of traits bears directly on adolescents' blameworthiness for criminal conduct and on what sanctions we should be imposing on adolescents for that criminal conduct.
The United States incarcerates more children each year than nearly all other countries combined, and we have thousands of prisoners languishing in jails for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children. More punitive than most other countries worldwide, we cannot resist finding new and different ways to 'punish children.' As our colleague James Bell notes, the United States is addicted to incarceration.
Indeed, we have become a country with a marked intolerance for adolescent behavior that researchers confirm is normative for this age group. We arrest teens for sharing nude photos on their cell phones when only a generation ago such images were shared—without penalty—with the help of a Polaroid camera. We expel children from schools for bringing butter knives in lunchboxes, on the theory, apparently, that today's butter knife will be tomorrow's deadly weapon. We can't seem to pass legislation quickly enough to require juvenile 'sex offenders' to register on public registries for life, despite uncontroverted research that the rate of recidivism among juvenile sex offenders is miniscule. We prosecute over 250,000 juveniles a year in the adult criminal justice system, yet research tells us that juveniles tried and sentenced as adults are significantly more likely to re-offend after release than juveniles who remain in the juvenile justice system. We place tens of thousands of youth in locked juvenile correctional facilities every year, yet research tells us that children kept at home in their communities do better in the long run than the children who are locked up. Day in and day out, too many American communities fail to treat children in developmentally appropriate, research-tested ways.
The American juvenile justice system was established in Cook County, Illinois—because its creators recognized that troubled kids needed to be treated differently from adults; they needed help and guidance, not punishment. Today, we know so much more about kids, their patterns of offending, and what works than we did over a century ago.
On this Leap Day, Juvenile Law Center proposes that we pause for the extra 24 hours to examine whether we are fully aligning the latest research with practice when it comes to helping our troubled youth. Leap Day in juvenile justice is long overdue.