Photo by Steve Liss
Thirteen states have not imposed a minimum age for prosecuting a child as an adult, leaving eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old children vulnerable to extreme punishment, trauma, and abuse within adult jails and prisons.
Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia have no minimum age for the adult prosecution of children. Very young children are vulnerable to unfair pressure when accused of crimes. The absence of a minimum age also exposes very young children to being held in adult correctional facilities, where they are at increased risk of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.
Hundreds of state and federal laws – from child-labor laws and compulsory education to age-based restrictions on driving, marriage, and even tattoos – recognize that young children need greater protections and more supervision than older teens. Children under 14 are especially immature and impulsive. They have not yet developed mature judgment or the ability to accurately assess risks and consequences. More so than older teens, they are vulnerable to peer pressure and are quick to comply with the wishes of authority figures, making them highly susceptible to false confessions.
Children under the age of 14 are protected in almost every area of the law due to their unique developmental qualities, but children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults in some states, and others have set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13. Although children lack the judgment, maturity, and knowledge that adult defendants are expected to have, courts often fail to take into account how children are different in assessing whether a child is competent to defend herself in adult court.
Prosecutors across the country have fought to prosecute young children in adult court. Pennsylvania prosecutors charged 11-year-old Jordan Brown as an adult in the fatal shooting of his father's girlfriend in 2009, and persuaded the judge not to transfer the case to juvenile court (a ruling that was later overruled). South Carolina prosecutors charged 12-year-old Christopher Pittman as an adult in the killing of his grandparents, and despite evidence that prescription antidepressants altered his behavior, he was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 30 years. (His conviction was later overturned on appeal.)
Nearly three decades ago, Joe Sullivan, a 13-year-old boy with severe intellectual disabilities from Florida, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense. At his young age, Joe repeatedly suffered sexual violence and assaults at the hands of older inmates, a period of sustained physical abuse that experts now believe may have partially caused the multiple sclerosis with which he is now diagnosed. Now 39, Joe is confined to a wheelchair. EJI recently won a reduced sentence for Joe and is providing him with support services.
Although each state has the resources and facilities necessary to allow for the age-appropriate treatment of children within the criminal justice system, many states continue to house vulnerable children with adults and expose them to cruel, unusual, and excessive punishment.
While the national conversation is starting to shift in favor of decriminalizing children, systemic and deep-rooted problems linger that could hinder progress. Youth of color are burdened by a presumption of guilt and dangerousness. In schools across the country, police disproportionately arrest students of color and those with special needs for minor disciplinary infractions, and courts do not hesitate to punish them. These children also face disproportionate suspensions and expulsions for minor misbehavior, which put them at risk of future involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems in what is known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."
EJI believes that the adult prosecution of young children is an outdated and detrimental practice that unnecessarily condemns children. Consistent with common knowledge shared by developmental experts, teachers, parents, and child advocates, a new minimum age should be established for all jurisdictions across the United States.