Editor’s Note: The following story by San Quentin News sports editor Gary Scott was published in the June 5, 2012 edition of the New York Times. Scott was arrested at age 15 for second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life at age 17. He has served 14 ½ years. He works with at-risk youth and is studying toward an associate of arts degree.
Like many states, California allows youth offenders as young as 14 to be transferred from the juvenile system to adult courts. From there, most of the teenagers who are tried as adults and sentenced to life in adult institutions are placed in Level 4 maximum-security prisons that are extremely violent.
If rehabilitation is the goal for teenagers who are tried and sentenced as adults, then prison is not the answer.
This happens even though courts have said that juveniles are different from adults and in some situations must be treated differently. For example, in 2005, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders because “people under 18 are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer-pressure and often capable of change.” However, the justices have not yet applied this same logic when considering the sentencing and housing of juveniles in the adult system.
In my observation, the incarceration of young prisoners in adult prisons has an extremely destructive effect. Young prisoners are more susceptible to negative influences than adults. Facing the reality of their lengthy sentence and potentially never going home makes them seek protection and try to fit in somewhere in their new world. Because a juvenile’s identity is still developing, he or she can potentially adopt negative behaviors that are the norm in a hostile prison environment. The fear of being victimized or assaulted produces a need for security, which leads many young prisoners to rely on gangs and weapons for survival. Young prisoners overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cannot focus on changing their thinking and behavior, because they are focused on how to survive. Younger prisoners are also at a disadvantage because they are not as mature (mentally and physically) as older prisoners. The suicide and sexual abuse rates of younger prisoners are higher than those of the physically mature. How can rehabilitation be possible in such a dangerous environment?
The only way to change the behavior of young prisoners is to provide them with the opportunity to gain insight into why they think and behave the way they do. If rehabilitation is the goal for teenagers who are tried and sentenced as adults, then prison is not the answer. There should be a different place for youth offenders. Prison is too violent, and the necessary programs that can contribute to young prisoners’ rehabilitation are underfunded. Rehabilitation is more possible in an environment that is conducive to education, where young prisoners can gain insight into their behavior to produce a positive transformation.