Skip to Main Content

Book Displays: Equal Justice Initiative 2022: Apr

Virtual displays based on the annual A History of Racial Injustice calendar.

April's Topic - Prosecuting Children as Adults

The bottom half of a child's legs clothed in an orange jumpsuit with shackles on their ankles sitting in a courtroom

Calendar photo caption: A 10-year-old boy sits in an Ohio courtroom with chains around his ankles after he was charged in a shooting. In the U.S., children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. (Associated Press)

Calendar Text

In the 2005 case of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that minors cannot be sentenced to death. In Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court narrowed the circumstances in which children can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. But there are few limitations on when and how children can be tried in adult court in the first place.

Since the 1990s, most states have allowed children to be tried in adult rather than juvenile courts, including some as young as eight years old. Several states, including Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, allow children of any age to be tried in adult court.

Nationwide, Black children are most likely to meet this fate. The National Association of Social Workers found that Black youth - just 14% of the nation's population - made up more than 47% of all children transferred to adult court. Compared to white youth, Black children also had a higher likelihood of being sentenced to prison and received longer sentences, even when charged with similar offenses.

These disparities mean Black children are most likely to suffer the harms facing children who are prosecuted as adults, including abuse and violence in adult jails and prisons, lengthy and even permanent sentences, and heightened risks of suicide.

Ian Manuel, a Black 13-year-old, was sentenced in adult court to life without parole in Florida for a nonhomicide offense. "Initially, on my first day in prison, I was placed in solitary confinement based on my age and how small I was," he recalled after EJI won his release. "They couldn't even find clothes to fit me."