At the turn of the 21st century, it was estimated that 250,000 children every year were charged as adults in the United States. By 2019, that number had dropped 80% to 53,000. This drop is to be celebrated and is the result of legislative changes in 44 states and the District of Columbia, as well as federal funding incentives. However, there is still much work to be done.
The children that remain exposed to the adult criminal legal system are overwhelmingly youth of color. The vast majority serve short sentences in adult jail or prison and return home by their 21st birthdays, the age at which services can be extended to in the youth justice system in the vast majority of states; indicating that many youth could be served, more appropriately, by the youth justice system.
This brief reviews the history, harms, pathways and trends that treat children as if they were adults.