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Who Really Belongs in Adult Prisons?

“[T]he young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.”

This line jumped out at me as I read this recent New York Times article (link below). I have heard, and used, many variations on this argument over the years when trying to convince people that putting children in prison is not a particularly great idea. Basically, the idea is that kids and adults are fundamentally different. Therefore, while it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons, children who have been convicted of crimes should experience something different, administered by a more forgiving, nurturing, juvenile justice system.

But where I have been getting stuck lately is the implication that it is perfectly acceptable to put adults into adult prisons. It started as a bit of an age problem—do I really believe that eighteen year olds have all the wisdom and maturity of my 94 year old grandfather? Would I feel more comfortable if the age to be tried as an adult were raised to 21? 25? At what point do I actually feel that putting people into adult prisons is helpful for both the person being incarcerated and society as a whole?

So lately I have been wondering if age should be such a major defining feature of our justice system. As far as I can tell, our justice system is based on the idea of individual responsibility and punishment. At some point, someone becomes solely responsible for his or her actions. At that point, that individual Deserves To Be Punished for any crimes or transgressions.

The United States incarcerates the highest percentage of our population of any country in the world. As of 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated over 2 million adults in state or federal prisons. People have begin poking at the edges of this problem—too expensive, too many nonviolent offenders, too many mandatory minimum sentences, too many drug related cases. But we always seem to leave a center, a group that is, at the end of the day supposed to be in prison. The really violent, incorrigible adult criminals that we seem to assume are out there and need to be behind bars. But who are these people, really, and what evidence do we have that we are all better off when they are removed from their families and communities and put into the sort of conditions that we no longer think would be acceptable if they had only been a few years younger at the time they committed their crimes?


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