This op-ed was originally published in Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
“Mom, I’m losing myself.”
“Mom, do you know what it feels like to hardly remember your life at home?”
“Mom, I haven’t seen or felt sunlight for weeks.”
My daughter Taylor has been raised in adult jails and prisons since she was 15. She is now 19 and it will be another six years before she can come home. At that point, as she navigates being an adult in a world she’s never known, she’ll carry the burden of probation until she’s 35.
She has been labeled a felon for life. Like other kids in adult jails and prisons, she has spent months in isolation to protect her from the very adults she is deemed by law to be on par with. She shows signs of PTSD, and I can only advocate for her from the sidelines.
How did she get there? Yes, she broke the law and she did need to be held accountable. However, the prosecutor decided that she should be tried as an adult. There was no input from a judge, no evaluations and no interviews with teachers or jail staff. Instead, my 15-year-old was woken up in the middle of the night, re-booked, given a different color uniform and told she was now an adult. Rather than a system intended to rehabilitate at-risk kids, she was sent to a system designed to punish adults. And there was nothing anyone could do to change what the prosecutor set into motion. No possibility to even try to appeal.
What if this was your son or daughter? I didn’t think this could happen to me, but it can absolutely happen to anyone. There are kids in prisons who come from families of all walks of life. Especially in Florida, where nearly 1,000 juveniles are prosecuted as adults each year — more than California, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan combined. Nearly all of these kids are sent directly to the adult system by prosecutors, with no evaluation or judicial review.
Taylor was a straight-A student and a competitive cheerleader. She had just finished the ninth grade. She had never been arrested before. Now she’s a statistic. She and four other kids made the mistake of a lifetime. I say mistake because at 15, that’s what it was.
It is a fact, not an opinion, that a teenager’s brain is not fully developed to weigh risks and consequences. It’s why they do stupid stuff. That’s why we don’t allow children to vote, serve on juries, enter a legal contract or join the military. So why do we pull out the adult card for crimes? Teens will age out of crime. Let’s offer help through services, not ruin their future with punishment.
Single prosecutor shouldn’t decide
Prison is not a solution, especially for kids. In adult prisons, there are no resources to meet the growing psychological needs of children or to protect them from the trauma of solitary confinement. They are at a higher risk for sexual abuse and they are 36 times as likely to die of suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities.
What many forget is that these kids do eventually come back to society. After being locked up with adults, they are 30% more likely to reoffend. Growing up in prison exposes them to worse alternatives.
What do you think they are learning in prisons? Sending a child to prison replaces the most important social bond, the family, with an institution, destroying their emotional well-being. Adult charges label them for life, making future opportunities such as jobs and housing difficult. What do we expect the outcome to be? Don’t we want them to be better people?
We must take adult prosecution of our youth more seriously. This session, Florida legislators failed to include comprehensive criminal justice reform for our kids, particularly the ability to have a judge review decisions to prosecute them as adults. We cannot continue leaving these life-changing decisions to a single prosecutor with no avenue to appeal, and legislators must understand that Floridians deserve better justice.
My daughter — and every child — deserves to be more than just a statistic.
Kim Lawrence is a Florida juvenile justice reform advocate and mother of a directly impacted teenager.