Guest Commentary: L.A. and S.F. have it right: No children should be prosecuted as adults

(Photo by Matias Nieto/Getty Images)

By Miriam Aroni Krinsky and Marcy Mistrett

Among the impressive reforms that Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced upon taking office was the commitment to stop prosecuting children as adults, joining San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in committing to end this practice, also known as juvenile “waiver” or “transfer.” Yet, every state still permits children to face harsh sentences that don’t reflect the realities of adolescent development — in 17 states and Washington, D.C., this includes children ages 10 and younger.

As we face a challenging holiday season unlike any other, we must remember the children behind bars experiencing profound danger and hardship, particularly in the wake of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. It’s time for our leaders to do better and end the practice of prosecuting children as adults.

As of 2015, almost 76,000 children were prosecuted in adult courts; the vast majority had no independent judicial review before being charged as an adult. In 2018, more than 4,000 children were locked in adult prisons or jails on any given night. Yet as the Supreme Court has recognized, kids are fundamentally different from adults.

Most of us recall times growing up when we engaged in risky behavior or made decisions without considering the consequences. Brain science research tells us this is because young peoples’ brains aren’t fully formed. Indeed, the vast majority of youth who come in contact with the criminal legal system — including those who commit serious crimes — will mature, as we did, and outgrow this behavior.

Meanwhile, adult jails and prisons are dangerous places. Kids in these facilities are often subjected to violence, including physical abuse and rape, and are substantially more likely to commit suicide than those in youth facilities. They are frequently held in solitary confinement, in some cases ostensibly for their own protection, despite the fact that the United Nations considers solitary confinement of children to be a form of torture.

These burdens fall overwhelmingly on kids of color. While racism is prevalent throughout the criminal system, there are few areas where racial disparities are starker than among children. Research shows children break the law at the same rate, regardless of race, but from 2005 to 2018, the percentage of Black children transferred to adult court by a judge rose from 39.1% to 51.7%, while the percentage of white children dropped from 45.2% to 32.2%. Moreover, though 60% of the broader youth population is white, 88% of children in adult jails and prisons in 2012 were youth of color.

California has led the nation and is now one of only six jurisdictions that require a juvenile court judge to review and make an individual determination before a child is waived and the only state that blocks transfers for children under the age of 16. The results show: The state has gone from directly filing more than 1,000 children into adult court, to last year transferring fewer than 50, without any significant increases in crime.

Prosecuting children as adults doesn’t make communities safer. Rather, research shows it leads to significantly higher recidivism rates. When young people come in contact with the criminal legal system, community-based interventions achieve the best outcomes, including the lowest re-offense rates and the greatest rates of high school completion, even among those who have committed serious crimes. Incarcerating children in adult correctional institutions also denies them access to developmentally appropriate programming and supports that would prepare them to successfully rejoin their community.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that treating children as adults is destructive for both kids and communities, there have been substantial reforms. Forty states and the District of Columbia have adopted legislation to make it less likely that kids will be treated as adults, while 24 states have rolled back automatic transfer provisions that required certain cases to be sent to adult court, and nine have completely repealed at least one type of automatic transfer. The number of children charged as adults has decreased by more than two-thirds over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, racial disparities have increased during this time, and there are still thousands of children across the country experiencing the harsh repercussions of adult court prosecution.

Further legislative changes are needed to keep kids out of adult courts and prisons. Elected prosecutors — who have a responsibility to promote sensible reforms and protect communities from the poor public safety outcomes that these practices produce — should be leading voices for change. And until laws are changed, they should follow Gascón and Boudin by committing to not prosecute children as adults.

Many families are already spending the holidays apart this year, but in future years, when we are all able to be with loved ones again, let’s ensure justice-involved children also see better days: close to home, with the care they need, and in settings that keep them safe and help them grow into healthy adults.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor. Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice –

Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link:

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. David Greenwald

    This is just a damning stat: “Research shows children break the law at the same rate, regardless of race, but from 2005 to 2018, the percentage of Black children transferred to adult court by a judge rose from 39.1% to 51.7%, while the percentage of white children dropped from 45.2% to 32.2%. Moreover, though 60% of the broader youth population is white, 88% of children in adult jails and prisons in 2012 were youth of color.”

      1. David Greenwald

        There aren’t enough gang shootings to drive the data.

        From the citation above: “Beginning with arrests, Black children, who account for just 16 percent of the youth population, have consistently accounted for 50 percent of youth arrested for person offenses, while from 2005 to 2018, their portion of arrests for property offenses rose from 30 percent to 42 percent. Their proportion of arrests for drug offenses did drop from 2005 to 2018, from 29 percent to 23 percent, but rose for weapons offenses from 37 percent to 43 percent.119 This is true despite youth, independent of race and ethnicity, engaging in delinquent behavior at similar levels.In terms of transfer to adult court, in 2018, while the likelihood of white youth being judicially waived to the adult system had remained constant since 2005, the likelihood of Black youth being waived by a juvenile court judge had increased, particularly for person offenses.”

        Researchers argue this is based on implicit bias.

        “In fact, the very idea of seeing children as adults is inextricably intertwined with racism. Throughout American history, white people have seen children of color as older, more threatening, and in general as mini-adults rather than vulnerable children.”

          1. David Greenwald

            That’s actually a point in question – I posted stats in the other post that show some of the offenses and percentages.

            For example, prior to Prop 57 a few years ago, a gang charge was an automatic direct file case. But the range of actual offenses and involvement was very broad, yeah it could be a shooting or a serious assault, or it could be petty theft where the guy has a gang enhancement that is spurious at best. That was part of the problem. They weren’t necessarily serious offenses.

        1. Keith Olsen

          Does it break down the types of crimes, gun related offenses?  That’s the trouble with stats, unless they’re deeply dug into can you really trust the data?

        2. Alan Miller

          Researchers argue this is based on implicit bias.

          “In fact, the very idea of seeing children as adults is inextricably intertwined with racism.

          These cited Researchers, for everyone’s information, have no political bias or agenda, and are basing their facts on 100% pure-bred Rhode Island *** SCIENCE ***

      2. Tia Will


        One doesn’t get transferred to adult court unless it’s a very serious crime.  My guess would be gun related offenses fueled much of this.”

        If one even gets to court. I’m guessing you did not mean “gun-related” offenses like that of Tamir Rice, shot dead within seconds of police arrival for the crime of playing with his toy gun. Amongst the comments made to justify this shooting was that he was “big for his age” and “looked older”.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Tamir Rice was not arrested… a victim of homocide (reckless?), perhaps murder… Tamir was never charged, nor convicted, nor did prison time… so Tamir did not commit an offense… others clearly did…

  2. Tia Will


    Tamir Rice was not arrested”

    That was precisely my point. That is why my first sentence was “if you even make it to court.” Tamir’s murder (IMO)  had zero to do with the crime rates, the crimes of others, or anything other than his appearance. I have related several times here, my white son’s experience with being stopped by the police to investigate his possession of a similar toy with a completely different outcome. I believe this is only one example of on the spot judgment by race and size and degree of “scariness” alone.  It starts on the street, or in the school, or in the shops and permeates our judicial system from top to bottom. I do not see how anyone can try to deny this reality of our society.


  3. Chris Griffith

    I believe any child over the age of 17 who has committed a crime should be given a choice of either military service or jail / prison. There was many people given that choice during the Vietnam war and it definitely changed a lot of lives for the better and I think it could do the same for these little mush brains we have today.






    1. Bill Marshall

      How about police academy rather than military?  Might be a clue as to other issues…

      During the Vietnam “police action”, a person’s odds of injury (physical or MH), illness, or death, was roughly the same as being in prison… odds have improved somewhat in the last 20 years… if deployed overseas…

      Very nice of you to add military service… in effect, compulsory service like the ‘draft’…

      Saying that, those who choose to serve in the military (non compulsory) have my great respect and I thank them for their service… I also respect those who served compulsory… and both deserve all the resources to keep them healthy, and treat them for their wounds, illnesses, and time served considerations…

      Apparently, the current ‘Commander-in- Chief’ does not feel the same, with his veto of an “across the aisle” military appropriations bill, passed big time, by both Houses of Congress… we’ll have to see if the Repubican-dominated Senate sustains the override as those evil Democrats/’rogue’ Republicans have done in the House of Representatives…

      1. Alan Miller


        How about police academy rather than military?

        That way, criminals can become police officers.  How does that square with “defund the police” ?  My brain hurts.

  4. Chris Griffith

    Of those so-called 76,000 children that were prosecuted in adult Court how many of them had parents that were either criminals themselves or drug addicts alcoholics or just simply didn’t participate with raising their children there’s a lot to be said about early childhood development in the early stages of life.

    1. Bill Marshall

      An opinion, or assertion, posed as a question…  cute… sorta’… I note no “?” at the end…

      I suspect you have a certain mentor, who posts regularly…

  5. Chris Griffith

    I think anybody over the age of 18 is an adult.

    I could be wrong but I think anybody over the age of 17 can join the military

    Considering that well over 70% of the youth couldn’t join the military because of either obesity lack of a high school diploma drug addiction or criminal conviction is the reason why I believe we should lower our standards for service in the military to try and salvage what is left of our society because if we don’t we’ll just have more people defecating on the sidewalks of San Francisco and breaking in the cars and etc and etc.

    Does anybody else have a great idea and what to do with these little mushrooms?



    1. Don Shor

      I can tell you that people who have voluntarily joined the military aren’t likely to be pleased to see it being used as a type of reform school, nor especially to have them “lower our standards for service.” There are reasons for those standards.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Yep… the notion dishonors my father, father-in-law, three uncles, an aunt, and both my grandfathers…

        Not to mention 3 2nd cousins… and several other extended family members…

        You called it, Don… 10 for the ‘landing’…

      2. David Greenwald

        There is a kernel of sense to the proposal. What we really need to do with people who end up in the system is in fact train and educate them to give them an opportunity to get their feet under them and enable them to become productive citizens and the military is one potential path to that. But I’m not sure that’s how I would go about doing that training and you point out some downsides to it.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for