A new study from the University of Texas at Austin says underage offenders sentenced as adults are more likely to return to prison than those tried as juveniles. Lead author and public affairs professor Michele Deitch says in Pennsylvania, current law allows kids’ cases to transfer to adult courts, and from there, harsh mandatory sentences can victimize juveniles. She says theoretically, a seven-year-old convicted of murder would serve life without parole in an adult prison. Not that it would definitely be a long term; Deitch says she found that imprisoned children are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their adult counterparts.
Deitch says as a compromise between a fair punishment and protecting kids, many states have introduced ‘blended sentencing.’ “Typically, it will be a juvenile sentence combined with a suspended adult sentence, and when the kid reaches the age of majority in that state, they go back before the judge, who gets to take a second look at them and figure out, ‘Did they get a chance to rehabilitate? Did they take advantage of programmatics, opportunities in the juvenile prison?’” says Deitch.
She says the blended method would be more effective than the state’s current system, because kids who go through the adult system have a higher recidivism rate and are more than twice as expensive to house. Deitch says this needless waste of taxpayer money is exacerbated by the lack of severity of many kids’ crimes. “Almost half of them are there for property offenses or even public order offenses, so these are not necessarily the headline-worthy cases. We’re finding extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and even racial disparities in decisions about whether a child should be transferred to an adult court,” says Deitch.
She says lawmakers need to recognize there are middle-ground solutions. “We could still recognize that children are children, and that they have the potential to change and rehabilitate, and that they’re not as blameworthy as adults, and so we shouldn’t be posing as harsh sentences on them,” says Deitch.