When Kids Go to Prison

A 12-year-old was sentenced to 30 years in adult prison for killing his grandparents, possibly as a result of an adverse reaction to antidepressants. A 14-year-old, awaiting trial, spent the next two years without seeing natural light.

More than half of all U.S. states allow children ages 12 and older to be prosecuted as adults. “And there are 22 states in which a child as young as 7 can be prosecuted as an adult,” says Michele Deitch ’82.

Michele Deitch
“There are 22 states in which a child as young as 7 can be prosecuted as an adult.” Michele Deitch '82; Majors: English & Psychology

Deitch has been researching issues of youth incarceration since 2007. Children sentenced to adult prisons are at much greater risk of suicide and of physical and sexual assault than those in the juvenile system, she says. Once released, they’re more likely to reoff end and end up back in prison. “So we’re actually promoting criminality by pushing them up to the adult side,” she argues.

Deitch is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, with a joint appointment at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Aff airs and the School of Law. In 2009 she and her students produced a report, based on a national study and titled “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” that debunked numerous myths, such as the assumption that preteens are tried as adults only when they’ve committed murder, or only as a last resort.

In reality, many children go directly into the adult system for their first off enses or for nonviolent crimes. The report prompted a New York Times editorial calling for “laws that discourage harsh sentencing for preadolescent children and that enable them to be transferred back into the juvenile system.”

Kids in prison
Some children serve time in adult prisons even for their first offenses and for nonviolent crimes.

Through subsequent reports, Deitch and her students helped spur the 2011 passage of Texas Senate Bill 1209, which gives judges the option to send children to juvenile detention centers instead of adult jails while awaiting trial, so that “these youths could be housed with age-appropriate peers, participate in educational classes and receive necessary services,” according to a news account from the university. Deitch and students also produced a chapter on youth behavior management for a National Institute of Corrections guide.

Deitch described the problems with trying and imprisoning youth as adults in a November 2014 TEDx Talk at Amherst. It became an Editor’s Pick on the TEDx website and has been viewed more than 20,000 times on YouTube. Deitch—a former Amherst trustee, with graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard Law— spent the early 1990s as a courtappointed monitor of conditions in Texas prisons and went on to become general counsel to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee and policy director of the Texas Punishment Standards Commission.

Her current work concerns the importance of independent oversight for juvenile and adult correctional facilities, and the goal of raising Texas’ minimum age at which a person must be tried as an adult from 17 to 18. This way, she believes, many 17-year-olds could learn and grow from the juvenile system.