Prison Is No Place for Kids: An Interview with Author Jean Trounstine

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In recent years a question has presented itself amongst criminal justice circles: Should juvenile offenders be treated as kids or adults? This question seems to be increasingly important as instances of serious crime committed by juveniles has become more prevalent, or at least more visible, in the United States. The fact that "as many as 250,000 juveniles are tried, sentenced or incarcerated each year as adults", according to Aljazeera America is enough to give anyone pause due to the breadth of the issue.

The first juvenile court was established in 1899; by 1954, every state had a juvenile justice system. At the time there were strong sentiments that kids shouldn't be held to the same standards as adults. But by the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s opinion had shifted, and with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 children as young as 13 could be tried in regular, adult federal courts. Since that time the pendulum has started to swing back, although leaving in place a trend of ambiguity and variety amongst the states.

This issue is one of research, human development, and what is deemed to be socially responsible behavior. According to Laurence Steinberg, distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University, this issue "is not about whether juveniles should be excused from criminal responsibility . . . [but] whether the way we respond to a juvenile who commits a crime should differ from how we respond when the same crime is committed by an adult." This cuts to the heart of the matter. Juveniles simply don't have fully-developed brains and, as a result, have severe problems with both impulse control and appreciating the consequences of their actions. In the words of professor and juvenile justice researcher Jean Trounstine, "Retribution is an important part of our punishment paradigm in the United States. But how much punishment is enough and to what end?"

With this, today I sit down with Jean Trounstine, author of the forthcoming Boy With A Knife (IG Publishing, forthcoming 2016), a book which discusses one such case of a juvenile being sentenced to an adult prison, to discuss her take on juveniles serving sentences of incarceration in adult prisons, and if juveniles should ever be permitted to be sentenced as adults.

Q: What sparked your interest in the juvenile justice system and the reform movement?

A: Although I had worked for ten years with women, teaching and directing plays in prison, I was shocked when I received a letter from a young man behind bars sentenced to life in an adult prison for a murder he committed at age sixteen. He had found my book Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women's Prison in the prison library and thought I might be able to give advice to a female friend about parole issues. He was so articulate and well read that it was hard for me to understand how someone this bright had been sentenced to serve almost half his life in prison before he could even seek parole. I never intended to write more than a few perfunctory letters to answer his questions, but he drew me in with the power of his language and the face behind the crime. I began researching the issues he talked about, and my interest multiplied as I considered the difficulties of kids going to prison with adults and all its consequences.

Q: During your research, what have you found to be the strongest arguments for not sentencing juveniles as adults?

A: Kids are not little adults: their behavior is different; their brains are different. They also have the potential to change. The ways neuroscience might be used in the criminal justice system are fascinating and being seriously discussed . The Supreme Court has recognized the difference between juveniles and adults in several rulings, notably Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama.

Q: Is this more of a social responsibility or brain development perspective?

A: Dr. Robert Kinschereff whom I recently heard speak said that we've had psychological theory for a while (by which we know that juveniles are impulsive take more risks etc.) and the results of neuroscience came later--i.e. the brain of a juvenile is actually different from that of an adult. I like to think of it as a sidekick to the head honcho. But the combination is powerful. Social responsibility adds another dimension, and yes, it is our responsibility as a country to make policy that is in line with research and in line with international standards: adolescents deserve the chance to change.

Q: Certainly those who commit crimes, even if underage, should be held accountable for their actions. Instead of incarceration, what do you suggest?

A: I can't say juvenile facilities are doing a heck of a great job. Anyone who read Nell Bernstein's Burning Down the House knows that. But there is a model program in Missouri that is based on surrounding kids--even those who have committed violent crimes--with positive supportive, healthy programs, and encouragement to look at their behavior that got them where they are. We need to help kids to educate themselves, give back to their communities, and develop into the kind of citizens we want next door to us.

Q: Will this actually fix or rehabilitate kids who commit crimes?

A: I don't think "fix" is the appropriate way to look at kids' behavior. They've strayed, they've screwed up, they've made horrible mistakes, and in some cases they've committed unspeakable crimes. Their acts cannot be ignored. But harsh punishment does not actually work to help kids back on track. Research shows that young people in the juvenile system are less likely to go back to crime that than those who are behind bars in the adult system.

Q: What does the research say about juveniles who are sentenced to imprisonment?

A: First of all, at every step of the process, kids of color are treated more harshly, from arrest to incarceration. Black youth are 9X more likely to be sentenced to adult prisons than white ones. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth who end up in the adult criminal system are approximately 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for violent or other crime than youth retained in the juvenile court system.

Q: Should any juveniles ever be sentenced as adults? Please explain.

A: The simple answer is no. If we put kids in with adults, we see more suicide, more rape, more isolation, and more development of mental illness. We can develop alternatives to incarceration with adults, for those who need secure placements, and for others, we should keep them with their families while they get services, jobs, and the help and education they need. By the way, Connecticut is considering raising the age that juveniles can be tried as adults to age twenty-one.

Q: What is the perspective of victims of juvenile crime? Are they for or against incarceration and sentencing perpetrators as adults?

A: Perspectives range all over the map but as Bill Pelke whose grandmother was tragically killed by a fifteen-year-old boy says, "The penalty can never be enough for a murder, that's just a fact. Regardless of what we do to the person who committed the crime, we aren't going to bring back the person who was killed." Key findings from Campaign for Youth, a D.C. non profit, reveal that 89 percent of the public "strongly favors rehabilitation and treatment approaches, such as counseling, education, treatment, restitution, and community service;" and nearly 70 percent "rejects placement of youth in adult jails and prisons."

Q: Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner's Fight for Justice profiles the story of Karter Kane Reed who was convicted of second-degree murder in Massachusetts. What has his story taught you about the juvenile justice system in the United States?

A: Our need for vengeance drives too many of our policies. Youth crime has gone down in the past years and still, our laws lag behind our knowledge. Youth do change. We must not do to other people's kids what we don't want for our own.

Q: If readers want to learn more about the ongoing debate concerning how to treat juveniles who commit serious crimes, where can they go?

A: I highly recommend The Campaign for Youth Justice's website. I also think the Sentencing Project has done some wonderful reports on youth and justice. The Missouri Model is worth looking at and I am interested in what the Vera Institute's Center on Youth Justice will do to reform secure placements for youth.