Juveniles in Adult Prisons

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The main topic of this article is the incarceration of young offenders in adult prisons and its associated factors and outcomes. At present, the United States Bureau of Prisons detains 239 juveniles with an average age of seventeen years old. It is important to note that the United States is among just six nations that permit the execution of underage individuals.

Presently, there are 68 juvenile offenders on death row, all of whom committed crimes as minors. Of these prisoners, 43 belong to minority communities. Although lacking certain rights like voting, alcohol consumption privileges, or driving licenses, these young individuals share the same level of responsibility as adults. Regrettably, while in prison, they often become targets for older and more seasoned criminals.

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According to Brian Stevenson, Director of the Alabama Capital Resource Center, there is a complete abandonment of young individuals when it comes to reform or rehabilitation. Instead, we are choosing to ignore these children. A Juvenile Justice Bulletin report shows that two-thirds of juveniles arrested for violent crimes were either released or put on probation. Furthermore, just over one-third of young individuals charged with murder were moved to adult criminal court.

Recent data shows that only 1% of young individuals in New York who were arrested for crimes like muggings, beatings, rape, and murder actually ended up in prison. Another study found that delinquent boys typically need to be arrested thirteen times before the court will impose stricter measures such as probation. Since 1978, New York has been making legal adjustments to treat violent juvenile offenders aged 12 and above as adults. However, even with these modifications, only 20% of the most serious offenders have truly faced incarceration.

The transfer hearing is where the decision to waive a juvenile to either adult or criminal court is made. The two main factors considered for waiver are the child’s age and the nature of the alleged offense. Certain jurisdictions may require the child to be of a specific age and accused of a felony, while others allow waiver solely based on age regardless of the offense. Conversely, some jurisdictions have no conditions at all. Juveniles can be tried in any state using one of three methods:

  1. Concurrent Jurisdiction: the prosecutor has the discretion of filing charge offenses in either juvenile or criminal court.
  2. Excluded offenses: the legislature excludes from juvenile court jurisdiction certain offenses that are either very minor, such as traffic or fishing violations, or very serious, such as murder or rape.
  3. Judicial waiver: the juvenile court waives its jurisdiction and transfers the case to criminal court.

According to Barry Feld, a scholar of juvenile law, he is in favor of mandatory waivers for serious crimes that would transfer juveniles to adult court. Those who support the crime control model argue that the primary goal is to protect the public, deter violent behavior among young people, and incarcerate severe youthful offenders within the adult criminal justice system. However, supporters of rehabilitative justice view this as an assault on the juvenile justice system. Nevertheless, advocates of crime control see these measures as essential due to the increasing rate of juvenile violence.

The Southwest Multi County Corrections Center is the largest maximum-security program for juveniles under federal authority. The BOP pays $99.80 a day for each juvenile. Approximately half of the juveniles are more than 250 miles away from their homes, which is a major criticism of placing juveniles in the BOP system. Most experts agree that involving the families of incarcerated youths in their therapy and lives is crucial for successful rehabilitation. Larry Beredtro, President of Reclaiming Youth International, emphasizes the need for the government to stop placing kids far from their home regions.

According to Norbert Sickler, the director of the facility, they provide assistance to specific families by covering travel expenses and offering free accommodations in the area. They encourage written and telephone communication to help the children maintain connections with their families. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) aims to ensure that all federal juveniles are housed within a 250-mile radius of their homes by fiscal year 2000. However, despite this effort, the staff attorney from the Youth Law Center points out that it may not be sufficient. He highlights the lack of robust after-care programs, which results in a challenging reintegration into society for these children. Consequently, they are left without any support as they resume their lives.

Although there are ongoing discussions in Congress about the possibility of more juveniles being charged in federal courts, no attention has been paid to whether federal prisons can handle an increase in their numbers. It is worth mentioning that federal prisons are primarily meant for adults and currently hold 116,000 adult inmates. Currently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) supervises 239 juveniles, a figure that already poses difficulties for the system.

The number of youths has increased from 111 in 1990. There is little discussion about how to deal with the growing number of youths, only mention of getting tough. Youths can be sent to federal prison for violating federal laws like drug trafficking and bank robbery, or for committing crimes on federal property. The majority of juveniles in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system are there for felonies committed on Indian reservations, with Native Americans comprising two-thirds of all juveniles. James Cunningham, another expert in juvenile justice, states that the BOP’s methods are designed for adult offenders rather than rehabilitating children.

The audit team has determined that the existing rehabilitation programs for these children are insufficient. Each child is only allocated twenty hours per week for a range of programs, such as schooling, vocational training, counseling, and mental health services if they are accessible. It is evident that numerous children face significant challenges due to severe substance abuse issues linked to alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. The presence of licensed counselors is crucial in addressing these addictions. Nevertheless, the BOP does have intentions to enhance and upgrade the juvenile programs, as confirmed by Sledge from the agency’s community corrections and detention division.

There are concerns among youth advocates, judges, and police about whether the BOP can accommodate a larger number of juveniles. These individuals criticize the federalization of crimes already dealt with by states, as they find no benefit in sending young individuals to distant prisons under federal control.

Should society decide how to handle young murderers, either by protecting itself or giving them a chance to rebuild their lives? Currently, Holman Prison is housing Clayton Joel Glowers, the youngest person on death row in Alabama and the second youngest nationwide. He is awaiting execution through Alabama’s electric chair. At just 15 years old at the time, Glowers was convicted of brutally sodomizing a junior college student, mercilessly beating her to death using a car jack, and disposing of her lifeless body in a nearby creek. “The burden weighs heavily on me as I constantly struggle with tension and anxiety while fully aware that I am innocent of the crime for which I have been confined within these walls.”

Flowers disclosed in a prison interview that Jay Thompson was charged with the homicide of an elderly couple at the age of 17, leading to his confinement on Indiana’s death row for five years. Nonetheless, his sentence was ultimately lessened to a duration of 120 years. Provided he exhibits good behavior while incarcerated, Thompson will become eligible for release upon reaching the age of 78. He expressed his difficulty coping with this circumstance, asserting that it is genuinely arduous as he will never have the opportunity to establish a family, raise children, or lead a conventional life. The remorse stemming from lost prospects only manifests itself when it is already too late.

The number of juveniles on death row nationwide has increased significantly, going from thirty-seven in 1982 to sixty-eight individuals. Remarkably, two-thirds of this group are minorities and two-thirds of their alleged victims were white. It is ironic that while society gives white children second chances, the same leniency is not given to Latino or black children.

The Supreme Court ruling in 1988, in the case of Wayne Thompson vs. Oklahoma, deemed it unconstitutional to execute individuals who were 15 years old at the time they committed a crime. However, a year later in 1989, the Supreme Court confirmed that those who were 16 or 17 years old when they committed a capital offense can still be subjected to the death penalty.

There are concerns regarding an increase in juvenile homicides and its impact on reevaluating the practice of executing or imprisoning teenagers for their entire lives. Prosecutors argue that many of these young offenders, considered morally corrupt murderers, pose a significant threat to society and should therefore face either execution or life imprisonment.

There is a belief that juveniles should have the chance to rehabilitate and start over. Judge Robert E. Lewis, a juvenile judge in Gadsen, Alabama, has seen 15-year-olds who are as knowledgeable and experienced as adults twice their age. Unfortunately, some of these young individuals have become dangerous predators. It is vital for society to prevent these predators from roaming freely. Hence, it is important to send a strong message that killing is not tolerated and carries severe consequences, such as loss of life.

Many prosecutors utilize the death penalty as a tactic to persuade juveniles who commit murder to agree to plea bargains. The purpose is to convince these young offenders to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The prospect of facing execution or death is extremely terrifying for individuals aged 14, 15, or 16, thereby pressuring them into choosing a lifetime behind bars instead. Every politician pledges to demonstrate toughness towards juvenile criminals as it has become the latest trend. It is likely that there will be an increased push for implementing the death penalty solely for young offenders in order to secure re-election.

In 1988, a study was conducted on fourteen juveniles who were on death row in four states. The study revealed that these individuals had brain abnormalities, low IQs, poor mental test scores, and serious psychiatric problems. It was also discovered that all fourteen of them had suffered severe head injuries during their childhood.

Interestingly, only five of the subjects had been evaluated by a psychiatrist before their trial. One notable case is that of Troy Dugan, who had borderline mental retardation and severe mental illness when he committed a murder at the age of 15. Currently, he is incarcerated in Louisiana’s Angola Prison on death row. It is noteworthy that his parents used to give him alcohol from the age of six to calm him down. Astonishingly, none of this crucial information was presented by the defense attorneys during his trial.

Victor Strieb, a law professor at Cleveland State University, strongly argues against holding juveniles to the same standards as adults. He likens politicians claiming that the death penalty will solve homicides to deceitful salesmen peddling snake oil.

Justice Scalia examined State and Federal laws, along with jury decisions, concerning the death penalty for juveniles. His examination indicated that there was insufficient evidence to back a nationwide agreement against executing minors. This determination was based on the fact that only 15 out of 37 states had prohibited the execution of 16-year-olds, and 12 states had banned it for 17-year-olds.

Justice O’Connor agreed with the decision that there was no widespread agreement across the country to oppose executing 16 or 17-year-old individuals convicted of capital murder, and therefore believed that the death sentences should remain in place. She also proposed that when examining Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence, the Court should consider whether the punishment aligned with the defendant’s degree of responsibility. According to a survey conducted by TIME and CNN, a majority of participants strongly objected to imposing the death penalty on individuals with intellectual disabilities, but most respondents endorsed its use for teenagers.

Countries like the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Yemen are well-known for executing individuals who committed crimes as minors. It is unfortunate to be connected with nations that have a track record of human rights violations. Among the thirty-eight states where capital punishment is allowed, fifteen state that offenders must be at least 18 years old. Four states set this age limit at 17, while the remaining twenty-one either establish a minimum age of 16 or do not specify any requirement.

Because of the slow speed of the American justice system and the lengthy process of appeals, juveniles who receive a death sentence usually become adults by the time their punishment is carried out. This extended delay can facilitate the execution procedure, which may involve actions such as flipping a switch, pulling a lever, or administering a lethal injection.

Transferring underage criminals to adult prisons not only has the effects of increasing crime rates, raising prison expenses, and escalating levels of violence but also puts them at risk from the adult inmate population.


  1. Glick, B. (1998) No Time to Play: Youthful Offenders in Adult Correctional Systems. American Correctional Association
  2. Wilkerson, I (1996) “Death Sentence at Sixteen Rekindles Debate on Justice for Juveniles.” New York Times, November
  3. Butts, J.A. and Snyder, H. (1997) “The Youngest Delinquents: Offenders Under the Age of 15,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice)
  4. Lefevre, P.S., “Professor Grapples with Execution of Juveniles.” National Catholic Reporter
  5. Snyder, A. “Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders” (1997) National Center for Juvenile Justice

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Juveniles in Adult Prisons. (2018, Aug 18). Retrieved from


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