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Children in the adult prison system: cruel and unusual?

The juvenile justice system exists to handle young people who commit crimes, most of the time with the goal of educating and rehabilitating youth so they can grow up without committing further crimes as adults. In some cases, as in especially violent crimes or homicide, underage children in North Dakota may find themselves facing adult charges. This means that instead of going through the juvenile court system, they will be tried as adults.

There is no minimum age for trying children as adults in North Dakota, states the National Center for Juvenile Justice. The ramifications of attributing adult intent and behavior to juvenile crimes is, in most cases, disturbing, according to many juvenile rights advocates. Many young people who commit crimes, whether they be theft, drugs or assault, have already been victimized by neglect, domestic violence and poverty.

The long-term consequences for children who are placed in adult prisons are dire. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, children in adult prisons are five times more at risk of being sexually assaulted than in juvenile centers. They are also more likely to commit suicide. For those who are able to get out on parole, they face a high risk of recidivism without having learned basic skills to get by in the real world.

About 10,000 underage minors are currently in the adult prison system. Nearly 3,000 have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The United States Supreme Court requires judges to consider the personal circumstances and individual characters of children being tried as adults, but child advocates say this isn’t enough. Many recommend that the practice of trying juveniles as adults be banned entirely.

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