Prosecuting Children


A young child sits alone in a cell in Laredo, Texas. Thirteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. (Steve Liss.)

In the 1990s, some criminologists warned that young, male, predominately Black “superpredators” would soon unleash a national crime wave. In response, nearly every state expanded the legal power to try children in adult courts, place them in adult prisons, and sentence them to death and life imprisonment without parole.

Criminologists have admitted their racialized superpredator theory was false, but its impact lingers. Thirteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults, and children as young as eight years old have been prosecuted. The United States Supreme Court banned the execution of children in 2005, but by 2010, more than 3000 American children were serving life-without-parole sentences that condemned them to die in prison. Many were sentenced under rules that barred judges from considering their youth at all. Children of color made up 7 in 10 of those age 14 or younger serving life-without-parole sentences.

Two Supreme Court decisions – Graham v. Florida in 2010 and Miller v. Alabama in 2012 – have greatly reduced states’ power to sentence children to life without parole. These rulings also gave thousands of people chances for new sentencing hearings and release, but did not wholly abolish death-in-prison sentences for children.

Each day in America, approximately 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons, where they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in juvenile facilities, and much more likely to die by suicide.