Guest Column: Don’t train kids to be felons in adult jails _lowres

Pat Nolan

The noted “tough on crime” criminologist John Dilulio once commented that “jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.”

Louisiana should heed Dilulio’s caution against locking up young petty criminals alongside violent adult criminals. The Bayou State is one of only nine states that prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults, often for the most minor of crimes (stealing a bag of potato chips, for instance).

We all can agree that breaking the law is wrong and that these teens deserve to face consequences for their actions. But tossing them into adult jails with hardened criminals just makes those bad situations worse. The research and data are clear: Adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around.

Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape and assault, and more likely to commit suicide.

They also are likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.

In addition, the damage of this policy continues long after they are released. By treating teens differently from the majority of the country, Louisiana makes it harder for them to grow into successful adults.

They carry the stigma of an adult criminal record — a burden that young people who got in trouble for the same low-level offenses in other states aren’t forced to bear. An adult record makes it more difficult for them to get back on their feet. They find it much harder to get a job, enroll in college and find housing. Without employment, work skills and a stable place to live, they are far more likely to get into trouble again.

Fortunately, the Legislature is working on a bill to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. It would assign most 17-year-olds who commit offenses to the juvenile justice system, where they would be held accountable, continue their schooling, learn critical skills and be prepared to live productive and healthy lives as law-abiding members of society. Prosecutors still would be free to choose to prosecute youth accused of more serious offenses as adults.

Let’s be clear: this is not a get-out-of-trouble-free card for anyone. The juvenile justice system demands accountability. And it involves families and communities — the societal structures that are most likely to put kids on the right path.

Raising the age would make society safer and stronger by doing away with the destructive “one-size-fits-all punishment” system we have now.

Adult jails and prisons can turn teens into career criminals, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill. By raising the age of how we punish and reform young people who make minor mistakes, Louisiana will help these kids turn their lives around, will make neighborhoods safer and in the process will save taxpayers money. This is being smart on crime.

Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pat Nolan is director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.