In the state of New Jersey, it’s not uncommon for minors to be tried as adults for crimes like drug trafficking, robbery and homicide. This only happens at the request of a prosecutor, however, and often depends on the color of the defendant’s skin, according to a newly released report.
An analysis conducted by WNYC Radio found that the majority of prosecutors’ requests for juveniles to be tried as adults were made for African-American teens. In addition, the study revealed that roughly 93 percent of the teens prosecuted as adults in New Jersey in 2011 were either Black or Latino.
Data obtained by WNYC showed that approximately 692 minors in New Jersey were tried as adults in the past five years — the youngest being just 14 years old. Not all of them were indicted or sent to prison, but WYNC found that almost 152 inmates were still stuck behind bars for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. About 20 percent of them are currently serving sentences of 10 years or more.
According to The Guardian, handing down harsh, adult-length sentences to minors for crimes like robbery and drug trafficking is unheard of in countries like Germany. Yet still, every state in the U.S. is allowed to prosecute juveniles as adults for such violent and/or non-violent crimes.
The publication also reported that in March 2016, New Jersey passed a law mandating that all minors prosecuted as adults be placed in juvenile detention facilities until their 18th birthday. The downside? The law isn’t retroactive and juveniles in the state can still be tried as adults — and carted off to adult prison, according to the news site.
But the disproportionate rates of prosecution between Black defendants and white defendants is no new phenomenon. A 2014 report by Virginia’s Disproportionate Minority Contact task force found that young Black men were being disproportionately arrested and jailed at rates much higher than their white peers.
“The main conclusion of this report is that Black youth are entering the system in disproportionate numbers compared to their White counterparts,” the 108-page study stated.
Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, also pointed out that Black youth and white youth often commit the same crimes. However, national research shows that prosecutors don’t seek to prosecute white youth as adults like they do Black youth.
“Controlling for nature of offense, controlling for family background, controlling for educational history — all of the things that go into a prosecutor’s decision, there are still disparities, significant disparities, that cannot be explained by anything other than race,” Cohen said.
In New Jersey, the minimum jail time(s) for minors tried as adults are 8.5 and 25.5 years, respectively, The Guardian reports. The maximum sentence is life behind bars. But it should be noted that previous research has proven that longer prison sentences don’t decrease the likelihood of youth recidivism any more that shorter sentences do. But that hasn’t deterred some judges from throwing the book at minors while society weeds out the less harsh judges who hand down light sentences.
“So we passed a bunch of mandatory sentences that take that power away from those loosey-goose judges,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a criminal justice policy expert at Harvard University. “Bit by bit everybody gets more and more time, and then we have a system that is very reliant on prisons rather than rehabilitation.”
Schiraldi asserted that although juveniles sometimes commit heinous crimes, they still deserve to be protected from adult prison records.
“[Juveniles are] more susceptible to peer pressure, they’re more volatile in emotionally charged settings, they’re less future oriented, and all of that stuff matters from the standpoint of committing crimes,” he said.
Amid calls for sweeping juvenile justice reform, states like Louisiana and South Carolina are working to raise the age of criminal adulthood, thus keeping more minors out of adult prisons.