By: James Dold
Today the world celebrates ‘Children’s Rights Day’ in recognition of the adoption of the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the subsequent adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989.
Here in the United States, however, we have little to celebrate. Despite the important contributions to the CRC by President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, and the signing of the treaty by President Bill Clinton in 1995, we have failed as a nation to advance and protect the human rights of our most vulnerable citizens — our children. Nowhere has our failure been more acute or tragic than for children who find themselves in our criminal justice system.
A few months after President Clinton signed the CRC, professor John J. Dilulio Jr. told the nation that a new group of “super-predator” children were coming of age who were more violent and less remorseful than ever before. These children, he claimed, grew up without fathers, without God, and without jobs. Despite his mea culpa in 2016, criminologist James Fox joined Dilulio and others, stating “unless we act today, we’re going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up.”
Both of their pronouncements followed the passage of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Control bill which provided funding to states to build prisons on the condition that people serve 85% of the maximum prison sentence before they could be eligible for release. At the same time this was happening states passed en masse laws making it easier to transfer children into the adult criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums skyrocketed and retributive slogans like “adult time for adult crime” became the norm when it came to dealing with child offenders.
Our actions violated the CRC and established international human rights law which have made clear that child status matters even when children commit serious crimes. Article 37 of the CRC, for example, prohibits nations from sentencing children under 18 years of age to death or life without parole. But by the time the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment for children the U.S. was in a notorious group of eight countries that had continued executing children after 1990. The other notable human rights violators we joined in the practice of executing kids during this 15-year period included Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China. If this wasn’t stomach-churning enough, the state of Pennsylvania alone has sentenced more children to life without parole than any other country on earth. The continued practice of imposing life without parole sentences on children is still being litigated in U.S. Courts.
Today, there are more than 11,000 people serving life sentences, with and without parole, in prisons across the country for crimes they committed as children and countless more serving de facto life sentences — that is — cumulative sentences of 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70+ years without hope of being released no matter how much they change or become rehabilitated.
In these cases, the status of the offenders as children, their trauma history, or other mitigating circumstances surrounding their crimes are rarely, if ever, taken into account before they are sent away to adult prisons where they are at greater risk of physical and sexual violence at the hands of adult inmates. Which brings us to a second human rights violation: Article 40 of the CRC which requires nations to take child status into account when children come into conflict with the law and promote the reintegration of these children back into society.
Every year approximately 76,000 children are tried in the adult criminal justice system where more than 90 percent of them are contending with early childhood trauma and unaddressed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Admittedly, it is hard to promote the social reintegration of people who committed crimes as children when we don’t even know how many there are in our prisons and when we’ve never worked to treat the traumatic experiences that led them there in the first place.
During the super-predator era, Dilulio blamed ‘moral poverty,’ that is “the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong,” as the root cause for the rise of super-predator children. Twenty-five years later children as young as 10 years old can be tried as adults in some states and the overwhelming majority of children who end up in the adult system — 83% — are racial minorities. America stands as one of the worst human rights violators when it comes to the treatment of children in the justice system. Our failure to protect our children from such violations and to teach them right from wrong through just and compassionate child policies has left our children surrounded by moral poverty.
It had been lamented by Mr. Dilulio at the time that “our faith in God and religion is not reflected in federal, state, and local social policies.” He was right. Any social policies that fail to protect children from interrogation tactics that lead to false confessions, or allow children to be sentenced to die in prison or be subject to the same harsh mandatory minimum sentences as adults, or allows child sex crime victims to receive prison sentences for acts of violence they commit against their rapists and traffickers is anything but rooted in God or religion.
I’m quite sure that when Jesus said “Let the children come to me” in Mathew 19:14 he did not mean so we could execute them or lock them away in cages for the rest of their lives. Moses, David, and the Apostle Paul were all guilty of murder and yet were beloved by God. Mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not weakness; they are the foundation of love and why we have saving grace. We’d do better by our children if we remembered that. For his part, Mr. Dilulio has apologized for the super-predator theory and has rededicated his focus to prevention and services for these children.
Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and we remain the only country in the world that has yet to ratify it. As the rest of the world celebrates this milestone we should collectively mourn our failure to protect the human rights of our children and resolve to do better. We can start by enacting criminal justice reform policies, like those championed by Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR), so all of our children grow up in a nation of moral wealth. That is, the wealth of being surrounded by loving, compassionate, and responsible adults who teach you right from wrong.