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Medical Group and Juvenile Justice Advocates Call for an End to the Incarceration of Adolescents in the Adult Criminal System

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and juvenile justice advocates called today for an end to the prosecution, sentencing and incarceration of youth in the US adult criminal justice system. Their call comes in response to the Campaign for Youth Justice's report released today, The Consequences Aren't Minor: The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform, which documents the experiences of youth in the adult justice and correctional system.

In the mid-1990s, nearly every state made it easier to transfer youth to the adult system, especially 16- and 17-year olds. As a result, more than half of the juvenile cases now transferred to adult court are for non-violent offenses. These policy changes were enacted before significant advances in adolescent brain research, which now suggests that the part of the brain which governs judgment and critical thinking is the last area to develop and does not fully mature until one's early twenties.

"Treating youth as adults goes against the foundations of juvenile justice and contradicts much of the scientific and medical knowledge around child development," said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). "The Supreme Court outlawed the use of the death penalty in juvenile cases because of the overwhelming evidence that children do not have the same decision-making capabilities as adults. Congress and state legislatures must recognize the immediate need for wide-ranging reform in the justice system and enact policies that take into account the health and development of youth. "

PHR supports the report's recommendation that Congress reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act this year, a mandate which currently requires states who receive federal funding to comply with existing standards for protecting youth held in adult facilities.

The Campaign for Youth Justice's report reveals that the number of youth held in adult jails has increased by 208% since the 1990s. According to studies by the U.S. Justice Department, youth in adult facilities are twice as likely to be beaten by staff, 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and 8 times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile facilities. The negative impacts on youth development are most pronounced for youth with no prior criminal history.

Advocates are also concerned about the long-term consequences of an adult conviction, which limit one's eligibility to qualify for higher education and financial aid, participate in military service, find gainful employment and obtain housing.

"Placement in the adult system has been shown to increase the likelihood that an adolescent will re-offend," Rubenstein said. "Juvenile justice reform is imperative if we are to protect the nation's most vulnerable and marginalized youth and give them an opportunity to thrive as adults."

PHR's Health and Justice for Youth Campaign mobilizes health professionals to advocate for policies and practices that promote the well-being, mental health and healthy development of youth in the justice systems.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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