Children in prison for adults | Equal Justice Initiative (2023)

Children at risk of abuse, neglect, violence, racial prejudice and poverty are often ignored unless they act violently.

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In a hundred ways, from compulsory education to tougher penalties for crimes involving minors, the law recognizes that children are different from adults: they are more vulnerable, more emotional, more impulsive, and unable to leave their unsafe homes or communities, but they are also more likely to change with age. And that's why we make laws to protect children from their own bad choices and from adults who would hurt or take advantage of them.

But until recently, these legal protections did not apply to children accused of violent crimes. Children were executed in the US up until 2005, and only in the last decade has the Supreme Court restricted itdeath sentences in prisonfor children. Children up to the age of eight can still attendloaded as an adult, imprisoned in an adult prison and sentenced to extreme penalties in aadult prison. EJI works to protect children from abusive treatment in the adult criminal justice system.

(Video) Sentencing Children to Die in Prison
The United States is the only country in the world where children as young as 13 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Related Report Cruel and Unusual The EYI report documents the practice of sentenced 13- and 14-year-old boys to death in prison.

Before the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors in 2005, 366 people were executed for crimes committed by minors.1Victor L. Streib, „The juvenile death penalty today: death sentences and executions for juvenile crimes, January 1, 1973 – February 28, 2005Death Penalty Information Center (October 7, 2005).This ban allowed EJI to focus on the nearly 3,000 people who were sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.Children as young as 13 were among those sentenced to death in prison.

Most of these sentences were coercive: the sentencing judge could not take into account the age or origin of the child. Some children have been convicted of crimes where no one was killed or injured, and many have been convicted even though older teens or adults were primarily responsible for the crime. Seventy percent of those under the age of 14 on death row in prison were black children.

EJI launched a litigation campaign in 2006 to challenge death sentences imposed on children. Three years later, we argued in the Supreme Court that the Constitution forbade sentencing children to death in prison.On May 17, 2010, the Court ofGraham v. FloridaLife imprisonment without parole prohibited for minors convicted of crimes other than murder. The court recognized that differences between children and adults must be taken into account in sentencing. Since 2010, we have successfully represented children across the country to obtain new verdicts.

We then returned to the Federal Court of Justicegrahamargue that sentencing children to death in prison regardless of the offense is unconstitutional. 2012 courtMiller x AlabamaRepealed mandatory life sentences without parole for all children aged 17 and under. The verdict affected thousands of people whose sentencing did not take into account age, details of the crime or other mitigating factors. The court did not ban all juvenile sentences to life imprisonment without parole, but noted that such sentences should become "rare" if convicts had to consider the "reduced criminal responsibility and greater capacity for change" of children.

Some states have declined to applyMüllerto older cases. On January 25, 2016, the Federal Court of Justice ruledMontgomery x LouisianaTheMüllerapplies retrospectively and requires new sentencing hearings for anyone under the age of 18 serving a mandatory life sentence without parole for a criminal offense.Montgomeryreiterated that life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional for all but the few minors for whom rehabilitation is impossible.

More than 1,000 people who were automatically sentenced to death for minor crimes have been re-sentencedMüller, and hundreds were released.

(Video) About the Equal Justice Initiative
When children are unnecessarily detained with adults, they are at greater risk of sexual and physical violence, further trauma and suicide.
Related Report All Children Are Children EJI documents the abuse of children in the adult criminal justice system.


In the United States, about 4,500 children are placed in prisons and adult prisons every day.2Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Statistical Information Booklet"(1993-2017) and "Statistical Information Booklet"(2000-2017).


Children housed in an adult prison are up to 9 times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile institutions.


Every state in the United States has the ability to house children separately from adults, but many refuse to do so.3Sarah Hockenberry und Anthony Sladky, "Census of residential facilities for minors, 2016: Selected results“, Office for Juvenile Criminal Justice and Delinquency Prevention (December 2016).

(Video) Slavery to Mass Incarceration

Many children treated as adults have untreated mental illnesses. Unlike adults with mental illness, children have very limited experience in dealing with their disabilities, fears, anxieties, and trauma. They often act impulsively, recklessly, and irresponsibly. In an adult prison, this behavior leads to more aggressive punishment, which can worsen the child's mental health problems.4Juvenile Justice Campaign, “Juvenile Detention: The Dangers of Incarcerating Juveniles in Adult Prisons in the United States(November 2007).

Many children who are referred to an adult court for prosecution are automatically sent to prisons and adult jails.5Patrick Griffin and others, "Processing of Minors as Adults: A Review of State Transfer Laws and Reports,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (September 2011).Some states strictly prohibit the placement of children in prisons or adult prisons, but most still allow children to be held in prisons and adult prisons, where they are at greater risksexually abused. As a result, thousands of young people have been assaulted, raped and traumatized.6National Commission to Eliminate Rape in Prison, “Report of the National Commission to Eliminate Rape in Prison(2009).

Some laws require separate sight and hearing for children in adult facilities to protect them from physical and sexual violence. In practice, however, this often means that children are placed in solitary confinement where they experience significant psychological trauma as a result of the isolation.

Judging young children as adults is traumatizing and abusive.
Related Case Joe Sullivan Joe Sullivan was just 13 years old when he was charged with sexual assault as an adult and sentenced to death in prison.
(Video) Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice | TED

The law protects children under the age of 14.because their brains are still developing: they have less judgment, maturity and knowledge than adults, and children under 14 are even less responsible and more vulnerable than older teenagers. But when a child is accused of a crime, those legal protections disappear, allowing children under 14 to be tried in an adult court and sentenced to an adult prison sentence or even life imprisonment.

Children's low social status compared to adult interrogators, belief in the need to obey authority, increased trust in adults, and vulnerability to intimidation make them particularly vulnerable to forced psychological interrogation techniques designed for adults, resulting in false ones Confessions and reliability of interrogation undermines fact-discovery process. Young children, of course, cannot defend themselves in adult courts, but rules protecting adults who are not “competent” to face a court of law do not take into account the unique characteristics of children. Their diminished understanding of rights, confusion about court procedures, limited language skills and poor decision-making skills put them at great risk in the adult criminal justice system.

Thirteen states have no minimum age to try children as adults: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.In some states, children as young as 10, 12, or 13 can be treated as adults.Eight-year-olds were processed as adults.

Every year the judgestransferDozens of children under 14 in adult court. Prosecutors charge other children directly in adult courts.More than half of the children under the age of 14 transferred to an adult court each year are African American or Hispanic.7Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Easy access to juvenile court statistics, excluded delinquency cases 2008-2017(2008-2017).

featured work

EJI fights child abuse by providing direct legal counsel to hundreds of people across the country. We defend clients at parole hearings, provide re-entry services for those who were incarcerated as children, and educate policymakers, decision-makers and the public about the treatment of children in the justice system.

Challenging Prison Death Sentences EJI's lawsuit campaign to challenge prison death sentences imposed on children resulted in the historic decision in Miller v. Alabama.
Documenting Abusive Sentences for Children What most Americans don't know is that an eight-year-old child can be prosecuted as an adult, sent to prison or an adult prison, and sentenced to death in prison. We are working to change that.
(Video) Equal Justice Initiative | Bryan Stevenson | Skoll Award 2016
Providing specialized rehabilitation services PREP is a long-term assisted release program that focuses on the specific needs of ex-offenders who entered prison as children.
Learn more about criminal justice reform


1. MLK Day keynote speaker: Bryan Stevenson, Founder of Equal Justice Initiative
(FOX 5 Atlanta)
2. Prison's Child
(Laura Love)
3. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Equal Justice Initiative), Montgomery, Alabama
4. Changing the criminal justice system on behalf of children
(PBS NewsHour)
5. We need to talk about an injustice - Bryan Stevenson
6. Bryan Stevenson | Equal Justice Initiative | Racial Inequality & the Presumption of Guilt


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