The Netflix mini-series “When They See Us” is a not-so-fictionalized account of the treatment of children in the U.S. criminal justice system. It shows what many international human rights observers have described for years: a system that violates the rights of children every single day in America, often children of color.
It is not simply the children’s vindication or innocence, however, that makes what they endured a violation of their human rights. It is the fact that their child status was completely discarded by the justice system at the point of arrest and interrogation through to conviction, sentencing and incarceration
The first episode in the series shows the complete lack of due process safeguards in place to protect the constitutional rights of children. The boys, who were wrongfully convicted of a high-profile rape 30 years ago, are subject to extreme interrogation tactics that would make even the most resolute adult falsely confess to something they didn’t do.
Data from the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan shows that nationwide, 36% of minors who were later exonerated falsely confessed to the crime. Moreover, 14- and 15- year-old children falsely confessed in 57% of the cases where they were later exonerated. Yet all over the country some states don’t even require a parent to be notified, let alone be present, when their child is being interrogated for a felony-level offense.
The most egregious human rights abuses, however, were those depicted in episode four against Korey Wise, whose child status was ignored during every phase of the criminal justice system. Children are sentenced as if they were adults all the time in America. Their child status is rarely considered at the time of sentencing based on the fiction that since they are in the “adult system” they are no longer children. As such, they face the exact same mandatory minimum penalties that a full grown adult would.
Today, there are at least 10,000 individuals across the country who committed a crime as a child and are serving a life or virtual life sentence. Almost all of the children who are sentenced in adult court, like Korey Wise, are incarcerated in adult prisons. They are often beaten, raped and emotionally harmed in a way that few can even begin to imagine. For their protection they are put in “administrative segregation,” also known as solitary confinement, as was depicted in Korey’s case. “When They See Us” is not just about the tragic injustice of the five teenage boys who were falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned; it is about how we have systematically violated the human rights of children in the justice system for decades without even batting an eye.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, states began passing laws to make it easier to transfer children into the adult criminal justice system. Retributive slogans like “adult time for adult crime” became the norm. At the same time this was happening, Congress passed the 1994 Omnibus Crime Control bill, which provided funding to states to build more prisons — on one condition. In order to receive funding states had to enact what are known as “Truth-in-Sentencing” laws, requiring people to serve 85% of their sentence before they could be released. There was no exception for children who by this time were being called by another name — “super predators” — which made it easier to treat them as disposable. An estimated 76,000 children are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system every year in the United States. These children face severe punishment that is disproportionate given their lessened culpability relative to that of adults.
We do not allow children to vote, enter into contracts, get married, join the military, or buy alcohol or tobacco products because their brains are not fully developed. The one area where we do not treat children differently than adults is in our criminal justice system, where we discard child status and throw children to the mercy of a system that was not designed for them.
Nelson Mandela said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” If one thing is clear, it is that there is an urgency for the next step of criminal justice reform to address the way children are treated in the system. Our soul is at stake.
James L. Dold (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO and founder of Human Rights for Kids, an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights for children.