Killing Kids

Rampant Child Abuse in Juvenile Detention and Juvenile Life Without Parole

PHILADELPHIA, PA -Children are supposed to be sacred in our society. The United Nations considers them in a special class, which must be protected. Most countries have declared children should not spend their lives in prison for crimes they commit as children.

Even the U.S. The Supreme Court has ruled that Juvenile Life Without Parole was cruel and unusual punishment as laid out by the 8th Amendment as recently as 2012 in Miller V. Alabama and 2016 in Montgomery V. Louisiana, which secured the former’s retroactivity across the board.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, wrote that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability” and that the most severe punishment must be reserved for the worst of the worst, “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

As a nation, we were on a path of eradicating this stain on our national consciousness until April of this year when in Jones V. Mississippi, Bret JuvenileKavanaugh destroyed a decade of progress and decades of presidents while falsely claiming to uphold them.

According to The Children’s Defense Fund, 43,580 kids were held in some residential facility, such as a juvenile detention center, corrections facility, or residential home in 2017. Each day 1,995 kids are arrested in America; 83 percent are locked up in a “secure” facility.

In some parts of the country, 80 percent of the girls who enter the criminal justice system have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse is a primary indicator that a girl will end up being incarcerated. Other forms of prior abuse are also a direct indicator of a child’s likelihood of incarceration.

According to a January 2007 report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency titled “And Justice for Some,” race and poverty levels are also significant indicators of the likelihood of incarceration and who will be prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.

A protester points out the statistics of Philadelphia’s stop and frisk policies during a black lives matter protest through Center City, Philadelphia, PA, in June 2020. (Photo by: Cory Clark)

Poor black children are more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and far less likely to have their charges dismissed despite making up a much smaller percentage of the population.

Research shows that white children commit “offenses” at the same rate as black children, but black children were thought more adult-like. They tended to be treated with less consideration for their age than their counterparts.

These facilities are intended to temporarily house kids that are likely to commit another crime or miss their court dates. It is believed that a vast majority of these kids do not meet the standards for detention, with at least two-thirds of these children committing nonviolent offenses.

In at least twenty-nine states, both state-run and private juvenile facilities such as those run by Correctional Services Corp. or Youth Services International, medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, physical, sexual, and emotional or psychological abuses are listed as being widespread and substantial.

Despite the best efforts of states that have attempted to reform their systems in their current form, those efforts have proven entirely inadequate. “History makes clear that any facility where a large number of individuals are confined against their will, shut off from the wider world and are utterly beholden to their keepers, is prone to maltreatment,” said Richard Mendel.

In most states where abuse was found, excessive force and prolonged solitary confinement were pervasive.

The Department of Justice found during an investigation into the conditions of New York State juvenile facilities that staff had “routinely used uncontrolled and unsafe application of force, leading to an extremely high number of serious injuries that included concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures.”

Now imagine it was your child locked in a small room, not much bigger than your walk-in closet for twenty-two -24 hours a day for weeks or months on end, strip-searched, shackled, pepper-sprayed. If you did any of these things, you would be charged with child abuse, but it gets worse because these abuses are just the legal abuses the state is allowed to inflict on your child.

Many of these kids also face other psychological, physical, and sexual abuses compounded by previous traumas and isolation from their families, friends, and communities.

“These institutions are dangerous, ineffective, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate,” said Richard Mendel in a 2011 report titled No Place for Kids.

A protester considers the disparity in spending between incarceration and education in Pennslyvania during a protest in front of the Philadelphia County Courthouse in Philadelphia, PA, in December of 2018. (Photo by: Cory Clark)

Not only do we place children in Juvenile detention centers with other at-risk children under inadequate supervision, but in most states, children are placed in adult facilities as well, putting them at even greater risk of victimization.

Children housed with adults were also thirty-six times more likely to commit suicide. A high price for a cry for help from those we are supposed to protect and nurture.

According to the Sentencing Project in its national survey of Life and Virtual life sentences in the U.S., it founds there were as of the start of 2020, 1 465 people serving JLWOP sentences, a 44 percent drop since 2016. This is because thirty-two states have changed their laws regarding the sentencing of children to LWOP currently. Only nine states still have JLWOP in their custody.

Of those nine states, Pennsylvania had the most, with 521 people serving life who were sentenced as children, “to this death by incarceration” as Mumia-Abu Jamal once put it, 325 of them were from Philadelphia.

“People who commit monstrous acts while incredibly young are not monsters. Overwhelmingly, they evolve. Overwhelmingly, they are capable of growth and change, and can safely be brought home,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner of Philadelphia. “People who have been incarcerated for decades following offenses committed while they were young are especially deserving of a second look in the middle of a public health pandemic that is crippling communities and economies across Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”

These are our children. We owe them a safe environment to grow up in, filled with love, healing, and support when they are traumatized by abuse or the conditions we perpetuate in our communities. It is time we live up to our obligation to them, even when they make mistakes and break the law or, worse, take a life. None of these kids ended incarcerated on their own. We put them there before and after they committed their crimes.

If you are interested in protecting children from these forms of abuse and replacing a punishment system with one that helps children heal their traumas, consider working with Philly for Real Justice, the Institute for Community Justice, or Black Philly Radical Collective. All of these organizations are doing fantastic work around social justice and criminal justice reform or abolition.

Social Media Links:

Philly for REAL Justice



Institute for Community Justice



Black Philly Radical Collective



About Cory Clark 68 Articles
Cory Clark is a photojournalist and writer who focuses on human rights and other social issues. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including Philly Magazine and Fortune. He has worked as a freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse for many years. Currently, he serves as the Senior Reporter for both Revive Local and the New MainStream Press.

1 Comment

  1. What if it was your son or daughter? Would you care enough to have this conversation then? Why don’t we talk about it and do something about it before it becomes your son or daughter?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.