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Does U.S. Juvenile Justice System Fall Short on Basic Human Rights?

A global study confirms that the United States has the highest child-incarceration rate in the world. (Adobe Stock)
A global study confirms that the United States has the highest child-incarceration rate in the world. (Adobe Stock)
November 20, 2019

CHICAGO - As the world marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, local leaders and experts in Illinois are pausing to examine human rights in the juvenile justice system.

The first-ever "Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty", being released formally today at the U.N, notes that the United States' innovation in creating the world's first juvenile court in Cook County more than 120 years ago. However, Brian Evans, state campaign director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, said the report also reveals that the U.S. has the world's highest child-incarceration rate.

"United States policies are a bit behind, but in terms of our research and our knowledge about the issue, we are global leaders," he said. "We know what doesn't work - because we're doing it. A lot of the world is moving in a much more progressive way. We should follow."

The report's implications for children in the United States are the topics of a webinar today co-sponsored by the Juvenile Justice Initiative, featuring experts from Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The United States is the only nation that did not ratify the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Cook County passed a resolution to examine the convention and the study's recommendations, and review local juvenile-justice policies and practices. A similar resolution, HR 544, is pending in the Illinois House, and another was introduced in Chicago by Ward 22 Alderman Michael Rodriguez.

Young people need opportunities to succeed, Rodriguez said.

"Many of our young people in our community are either out of school or out of work, and if they were to be caught up in the criminal-justice system, the odds of their life successes diminish," he said. "We need to start with our children and making sure that we're being proactive in how we rehabilitate - and more so, develop - our young people."

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recently clarified 14 as the minimum reasonable age for juvenile court prosecution, and it also prohibits prosecuting children under age 18 in adult court. Evans says children in the U-S deserve rights that are, at least, consistent with the global consensus.

"There's no reason we can't move towards these goals, even though they're pretty lofty. They're a good sort-of star in the sky that we should try to follow."

Cook County's 2018 ordinance raising the minimum age of detention from 10 to 13 recently was overturned by a state appellate court, however there are continued state legislative efforts to raise the age.

The U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty is online at undocs.org.

Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL