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never free

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Incarcerated Youth Not Free Even After Their Release

by Marcy Mistrett, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

July 5, 2016

At our country’s 240th birthday, I am reminded of our forefathers’ preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While history has uncovered the blatant shortcomings of this dictate, the rights to one’s liberty, or freedom, seem particularly important to highlight now. With nearly 95,000 children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons each year, the vast majority of them children of color, we have a responsibility to question this concept of liberty in the shadow of our carceral state.

Liberty, defined as being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views, has a long history of grotesquely unequal application in our country: It certainly wasn’t a protected right at the birth of our country for slaves, women or children, nor was it promised to numerous other special populations—immigrants, people who are disabled, LGBT communities, indigenous peoples to name a few. Yet, as many scholars have noted, as unique populations have gained access to liberty through the courts, other structures of oppression have emerged to stifle their ultimate achievement of freedom. Perhaps the most well-known and egregious obstruction of liberty is incarceration.

For our children who sleep in adult jails and prisons, the deprivation of liberty extends far beyond the restrictions on their movement. Despite being treated as adults in the criminal courts, children under 18 who are prosecuted as adults are hypocritically denied the freedoms granted by adulthood (voting, serving in the military, living independent of their parents, completing compulsory education, etc.). This inconsistency begs the question: Is incarceration itself the punishment, or are we sanctioning further punishment once children are incarcerated? Sadly, the answer is the latter.

Our country has become so reliant on punishing law-breakers, we have decided the deprivation of liberty is simply not enough. Instead, we subject young children to extensive punishment—to long periods of solitary confinement, repeated exposure to violence, sexual assault and physical abuse involving pepper spray, stun guns or prolonged shackling—all on top of decades of incarceration. We prohibit them from visiting with their families if they face a long time in prison; they go to the bottom of the waitlist for school, vocational training and mental health treatment—services that are considered necessary for those returning back to society.

And then, as if this punishment isn’t enough, we also punish them economically: Before they are legally allowed to establish credit, we set about eroding their finances. We charge them fines; when they can’t pay, they accrue penalties. We charge them for their health care, for phone privileges and for a bag of Cheetos. And then we ask, “Is this enough punishment? Have we deprived them of enough of their liberties?”

And still, the answer is no. For the vast majority of youth who come home after a period of adult incarceration (95% will be released by the time they are 25), they continue to face oppressive restrictions to their liberty. As we write in our collateral consequences report, children who return home from a period of adult incarceration retain that conviction for the rest of their lives.

This can (and does) prevent them from furthering their education, securing housing, finding a job, serving in the military, voting and thousands of other activities that define the “liberty” of adulthood. Furthermore, as conditions of their release, they are often told that they can’t congregate on certain community blocks or interact with certain people (including members of their family).

They are restricted from using alcohol, and are under surveillance for anywhere from one to five years, or, in some cases, for the rest of their lives. We have heard others refer to this as “perpetual punishment,” but it can also aptly be referred to as loss of liberty.

And, because we have found it acceptable to treat not only adults this way, but also children who are younger than 18, we have effectively undone a core tenet of our country’s founding principles.

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Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

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2 Responses to “never free”


  1. 1 Willow54
    July 9, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    This is a situation I have struggled to get my head around for a long time. I have previously commented on this blog how punitive the US legal system appears to be. In my country offenders are very rarely sentenced to life meaning entire life in prison unless their crime is particularly horrendous (e.g. murdering a police officer, a child or a serving member of the armed forces). The average length of prison sentence for an adult committing a murder would be somewhere in the region of 20 years, a little longer if they used a knife or a gun (also thankfully rare here). If a child under 18 years old has committed a murder the starting sentence would be 12 years. I should also say these are the minimum periods the individuals would spend behind bars before qualifying for parole.

    In some cases, if the child is particularly young, they would be sentenced to an indeterminate period of custody, but typically this means they would be kept locked up until they turn 18 or 21. Here children are never locked up in adult prisons. For teens aged 16 to 21 we have the equivalent of juvenile prisons. Here they are called Young Offender Institutions (YOI’s), which have a prison regime with offenders kept in prison-like cells and subject to a strict prison-like regime. Inmates are not allowed to decorate their cells, they have to wear prison uniform and they are generally not allowed the use of personal items, although the prison supplies TV in the cells, subject to good behaviour. Younger offenders are normally kept in Local Authority Secure Units (LASU’s), which are more like Childrens Homes, but with a secure perimeter and limits on movement within the property. Rooms are more like bedrooms with better facilities than in juvenile prison and offenders can decorate the walls with posters, drawings etc., they often get to wear their own clothes and, subject to good behaviour, are allowed the use of their personal MP3 players, games consoles, radio and TV. Obviously the inmates rooms are secure too and they are locked in when not partaking of activities.

    In both cases, young offenders are given access to education, counselling programs and work opportunities for older teens. If their sentence extends beyond the limits of the institutions, there are routes to transfer up the line i.e. younger teens can transfer from LASU to YOI at age 16 and older teens can transfer from YOI to adult prison at either 18 or 21 years old.

    It might surprise most Americans that there are less than 60 individuals in this country (the UK) who are serving whole life sentences without the possibility of parole, and the entire prison population is less than 90000. For minors the emphasis is on rehabilitation and the use of custodial sentences for under 18’s is very much a last resort. We don’t lock up children for minor offences such as possessing tiny amounts of marijuana, or truanting from school, or running away from their parents homes.

    I get the impression that successive American political groups have hated to be told their system is crap, especially by Brits, but where it comes to the treatment of minors, this Brit is definitely in the category of wanting to say the system is crap. There it is, I have said it.


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