Accountability is an important concept for kids to learn. From the time that children are very small, they learn every day that their actions have consequences. The extent to which children may be held accountable for their actions, though, depends on the situation.
For instance, if a 2-year-old flushes keys down the toilet, he will likely understand the consequence that if he puts keys in the toilet and flushes, they disappear. Holding him accountable for the trouble of having all the keys replaced is disproportionate to his understanding and to his behavior.
When young people are convicted of juvenile crime, whether or not they are tried as adults, it can be difficult to ascertain what level of accountability they should be held to. The consequences resulting from these different standards of accountability can be drastically different from one case to the next.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that regardless of the severity of crime a child allegedly commits, and regardless of what standard of accountability a judge deems fit to hold him or her to, incarcerating that child with adults is a disproportionate punishment for the child’s behavior.
Why? Because the safety of children is greatly endangered when they are imprisoned with adult offenders. And regardless of what crime an individual has committed, the criminal justice system is charged with protecting an inmate’s safety.
As a recent editorial in the New York Times points out, teens who are incarcerated in adult facilities are at higher risk for being battered, raped or becoming suicidal than those incarcerated in juvenile facilities. Those teens housed in adult facilities are also much more likely to reoffend once released.
One way to hold juveniles appropriately and proportionately accountable for their infractions is to try them and punish them within the juvenile justice system. For even though juvenile offenders must be held accountable for their actions, endangering their safety and punishing them disproportionately to their understanding and behavior is unacceptable in and of itself.
Source: New York Times, “Adolescents in Grown-Up Jails,” Oct. 15, 2012