Charging Youth as Adults has Public Health Impact, Report Says

Advocates in California say that for too long the hazardous health consequences of incarcerating juveniles in the state’s justice system have been obscured by overly punitive rhetoric around public safety.

A report released last week by Oakland-based nonprofit Human Impact Partners uses an emerging research tool to make visible the health impacts of juvenile incarceration, especially for youth under the age of 18 who are sent to adult court and adult correctional facilities.

The authors describe a court process that offers few opportunities for youth to deal with childhood trauma that often leads to involvement with the justice system. When it comes to transfers of youth to the adult system, racial disparities are widespread. As a result, they say, high rates of incarceration have done little to improve public safety and have damaging long-term consequences when it comes to youth development.

In “Juvenile Injustice: Charging Youth as Adults is Ineffective, Biased, and Harmful,” researchers used a health impact assessment (HIA) to make a public health case for why juveniles should not be sent to adult courts. HIAs use a variety of research methods to measure the health impact of policies, including collaboration with organizations and populations affected by the policies.

In this case, Human Impact Partners and the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice took a holistic view of the experiences of youth involved with the system and their families. They paid special attention to how environmental factors — including a lack of community investment, poverty, childhood trauma and adolescent brain development — can shape the experiences and behaviors of youth in the justice system.

In offering a wide-angle view of youth who end up in adult court, the authors conducted a review of literature around the transfer of juveniles into adult court, interviewed juvenile court professionals in the state and organized focus groups of individuals with direct experience of the justice system, including the adult system.

Among the findings of the report:

  • The justice system is biased against youth of color.
  • “Tough on crime” laws criminalize youth and are ineffective.
  • The adult court system ignores the environmental factors that affect
  • adolescent behavior.
  • Incarceration undermines youth health and well-being.
  • Families of incarcerated youth experience negative impacts.

Ana Tellez of Human Impact Partners says that a failure to address issues caused by environmental factors — such community disinvestment, poverty and childhood trauma — leads to poor outcomes and a continuing cycle of trauma and violence in communities. A public health approach to the way that youth are sent to adult court could begin to change that cycle.

“Youth acting up and committing crime is a public health issue that society is treating as a criminal justice issue,” Tellez wrote in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change.

In California, the passage of Proposition 57 in November changed the way the state was able to prosecute youth under the age of 17 in adult court. Now, youth in the state are no longer eligible to be transferred to adult court as a result of the type of crime they are accused of committing or through the decision of a prosecutor.

But even after the passage of Prop. 57, some juveniles in California can still end up before an adult court by a juvenile court judge after a fitness hearing.

According to Tellez of Human Impact Partners, even those transfers are still too many.

“Youth should not be charged as adults under any circumstances,” Tellez wrote. “There is no evidence base that it supports community safety.”

To read the full HIA report, click here.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 305 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.