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There are a lot of things you can’t do in the United States if you are under 18. You can’t legally buy or consume tobacco or alcohol, you can’t enter into a legal contract, and you can’t vote, just to name a few.
When you are a minor, the rules just aren’t the same for you as they are for adults. So, it would make sense that when you are under 18, there would be some kind of rule or law that you can’t go to prison. Right?
Today, I’m going to answer the question: Can you go to prison if you are under 18?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
It may come as a shock, but the federal government and all 50 states do send minors to prison if they are tried and convicted for their crimes as an adult. It doesn’t happen often, and the crime has to be something seriously violentㅡusually murderㅡbut it does happen. It is up to the discretion of the prosecutor.
Some states, like New York and North Carolina, actually have laws where you are automatically considered to be an adult in the justice system at the age of 16, no matter what crime you are accused of committing.
When I was incarcerated at an adult women’s facility, there was one female inmate under the age of 18. The rumor was that she had been convicted of killing her parents, but no one actually knew because we weren’t allowed to talk to her.
The minor inmate was completely segregated from the rest of the population. She didn’t go to classes, eat at the chow hall, or go to rec with the rest of the inmates. She did have access to all of those things, but she was always alone and escorted by an officer. Also, the minor inmate was housed in a trailer all by herself instead of a housing unit.
She didn’t turn 18 until after I left, so I never met her. But, once she did hit that age, she was released into the general population to serve her time with the other inmates.
I was also incarcerated with a girl who was convicted of murder at the age of 15, but by the time I got there, she was already 18. Her name is Alyssa Bustamante, and she was convicted of 2nd degree murder for killing a 9-year-old girl. She was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, I believe, and prison is the only life she knows. Considering her crime, that seems to be the appropriate punishment.
I will say that as far as how Alyssa was treated in prison, she was a rock star. Her case was always in the news, she had fan mail from all over the country, and she was quite popular with the ladies. Alyssa always had a girlfriend.
However, in other facilities, it is possible for minors to be housed with adults, and that can cause some serious problems.
“They diminish rapidly,” says Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the campaign for youth justice. “They don’t have access to their families. It’s a very scary place. They are subject to predatory behavior from other people. What does that make them do? It puts them up against a wall. They have to act tough or be tough. That ends up giving them disciplinary action. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle.”
If someone under the age of 18 is accused of committing a lesser, non-violent crime, they will go through the juvenile courts instead of being tried as an adult. This means that if they are found guilty, they will go to a juvenile detention center if they are incarcerated. Minors do not go to jail with adults, unless they are 16 or 17 and live in a state where they are legally considered to be adults.
If you are charged with a crime as a minor, you will most likely be prosecuted in the juvenile justice system, which is very different from the adult criminal justice system. Instead of focusing on punishment, the juvenile courts are more concerned about the “why” behind the minor’s behavior.
That means the juvenile system is more about treatment and education instead of retribution and enforcing the law. The design is to make the experience “beneficial.” Generally, no matter the crime, as long as you are charged as a juvenile you will not be incarcerated past your 18th birthday.
In the meantime, juvenile offenders attend classes and get treatment to help them make something better of their lives.
Do you think juveniles should be tried and incarcerated as adults for violent crimes?
Sources: Juveniles Law: What Happens When a Minor Violates the Law? https://criminal-law.freeadvice.com/criminal-law/juvenile_law/juvenile-law.htm Some States Are Still Sending Teens To Adult Prisons https://www.teenvogue.com/story/some-states-still-send-teens-to-adult-prison Incarcerating Juveniles in Adult Prisons as a Factor in Depression https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3732830/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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