The case against juvenile adjudications

If you’ve never been a defendant in juvenile court, it goes like this:

You spend a few days in a youth detention center. You’re locked in a cell at night, sleeping poorly on a thin plastic mat. At dawn, loudspeakers wake you and tell you to get dressed. You put on oversized jail coveralls and wait in line to be issued a paltry institutional breakfast that leaves your stomach hollow and pinched. Adults you don’t know tell you what to do. Kids you don’t know brandish open hostility. You experience it all with your childish impatience and unreasonable expectations. You know better, but you can’t stop yourself from hoping the grownups will change their minds and let you go.

Then your name is called for court. In a long line of subdued children, you’re herded down a series of endless clinically bright, stark hallways that reveal how deep inside this frightening place you’re being held. You wait for hours on a bench. Others are called up. They go through a door and disappear for immeasurable periods. When they return, they look dejected, beaten. Some come back crying.

You hear your name again. You shuffle in your flip-flops into a room full of stern, formal adults in suits. A judge regards you with no discernible emotion. You look for your parents and find yourself alone. Hypervigilance and uncertainty have worn you down. You’re hungry, tired, scared, restless. You miss your mom. All you want to do is go home.

A man you’ve never seen before says he’s your lawyer. Your only question is how long you will have to be here — and stunningly, miraculously, he says you can go home today. You just have to sign this form. 

This is how a child acquires a juvenile felony adjudication. They are not criminal convictions — at least not at first. But, in several states, should that child become entangled with the legal system as an adult, his or her juvenile adjudication will automatically be revived and transformed into a prior criminal act, increasing the sentence.

The rights of children in our society are not the same as those of adults. They can’t vote, own property, or make any significant decisions about their lives contrary to their parents’ wishes. There are good reasons for these constraints on their liberty. We, the adult members of society, understand that children are not adequately equipped to navigate the world on their own. They lack the mental tools needed to appreciate the long term or even the immediate consequences of their mistakes. We deny them the agency we enjoy, for their own good.

But offsetting children’s lack of autonomy are special protections. From the family outward, concentric circles of social institutions bear responsibility for safeguarding them, educating them and training them to conduct themselves according to our expectations. It’s the first half of the social contract. When children pass into adulthood they enter the second half, in which they gain all remaining rights of citizens, together with personal accountability for whatever choices they make. Until one crosses that threshold, however, any shortcomings on the part of the child are only a reflection of society’s own.

And so a charging document filed in juvenile court is a confession of failure. In it, society formally acknowledges it has failed to satisfy its responsibilities to one of its children. The social contract is broken.

The recognition that juvenile adjudications are a product of social institutions’ failure is one reason most states don’t use them in adult criminal proceedings. Another is recognition of neuroscience. We know children to be impulsive, emotionally ungoverned and singularly susceptible to peer pressure, making them less culpable for their actions than adults. 

Finally, there are the constitutional legal defects of juvenile court — often there is no right to jury trial, rules of evidence heavily favor the prosecution, and there are limitations on due process. Juvenile proceedings are simply not designed to be constitutionally sound. They don’t need to be. A juvenile court is not a criminal court, and not intended to function like one.

Our basic moral principles stand in tension with the practice of treating the delinquent acts of children as criminal acts against society. Moral issues are compounded by constitutional ones. Because a child in juvenile court is shielded by none of the myriad layers of fair trial protections granted to an adult criminal defendant, that proceeding cannot be, and is not considered to be, a constitutionally legitimate criminal proceeding.

To use juvenile court adjudications — years or even decades afterwards — as evidence of prior criminal conduct is an offense against our bedrock tenets of fairness. If juvenile adjudications are used in any way during the course of adult proceedings, it should be to establish mitigating factors — to show the court how this person was failed as a child, and how that failure contributed to what happened in the child’s later life.

In April, the Washington State legislature ended the practice of using juvenile adjudications to increases sentences for adult defendants. But eight states still have laws on the books requiring sentencing courts to use them, and several other states permit courts to consider them to some degree. That needs to change.

A history in the juvenile system is a history of childhood trauma, a history of harm, a history of disadvantage. The last thing we should be doing is using those histories to impose longer sentences on the people who lived through them.

Kevin Light-Roth is from Tacoma, Washington. He is currently incarcerated at a Washington State prison, where he works to organize the prison community around legislative bills. He is a regular contributor to the Information for a Change legislative update page on Facebook. His writing has been published at The Appeal, The Progressive, and the Everett Herald.

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