Alonza Thomas, a teenager who was barely out of his childhood, is spending thirteen years of his life in adult prison.
Thomas committed an armed robbery at age 15, shortly after California had tightened its laws against juvenile offenders. The initiative was part of a wave of harsh new laws passed nationwide, aimed at striking back against an anticipated wave of juvenile “superpredators” — remorseless kid criminals.
No one was harmed in the robbery, and Thomas was a first-time offender. Under California jurisdiction, he would be tried as an adult and sentenced to hard time. Facing as many as four decades in prison, Thomas pleaded guilty, lowering his sentence to 13 years, which he would serve in adult prison.
Here in Pennsylvania, our laws concerning juvenile delinquency are just as harsh. According to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, “any person charged with murder, no matter how young, will be charged as an adult in PA.”
The Center in PA also states, “A youth who was 15 years or older at the time of the offense will be charged as an adult if the youth used a deadly weapon or has been previously adjudicated delinquent of one of these offenses: rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated assault, robbery, kidnapping, voluntary manslaughter, or any attempt or conspiracy to commit one of these offenses.”
The United States is one of the only countries in the world to prosecute children as adults. According to the Bureau of Justice, at any given day 10,000 children are held in adult jails and prisons across the US.
In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death sentence for juveniles; however, we are the only country in the world to give a life sentence to children.
The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled on several occasions to eliminate certain punishments for juvenile offenders. However, there is a critical issue in the matter of trial jurisdiction for these kids.
Many lawmakers are assuming that transferring juvenile offenders to adult court will act as a deterrent to juveniles committing crimes. A recent study by the US Department of Justice, however, states that transferring juveniles to adult court has created increased recidivism among juvenile offenders, and therefore promotes life-long criminality.
Juveniles sentenced as adults are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide, and are also 25 times more likely to be a victim of sexual assault while in prison, according to the Department of Justice.
Instead of locking these children up and throwing away the key, the US should focus more of their efforts on rehabilitating juveniles and offering therapy to help kids and their families.
According to the American Psychological Association, a child’s brain isn’t fully developed until his or her mid-20s. During adolescence, the areas of the brain that have not been fully developed are the frontal lobes, which are responsible for judgment and reasoning.
Although in the courts’ eyes juveniles may offend like adults, in reality they reason like children.
The US must be consistent with its position on adolescents. It is nonsense to believe that a 15-year-old convicted of a crime can have the maturity and judgment of an adult, but at the same time is considered too immature to vote.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”