Crimes Against Humanity:

The Mass Incarceration of Children in the United States

The U.S. has committed human rights violations against millions of children in the criminal justice system over the past 50 years. This includes the more than 32,000 children – now adults – who remain incarcerated in prisons across the country.

Nearly 80% are children of color. America incarcerates more people for crimes they committed as children than the total number of people incarcerated in 80% of the rest of the world.

The mass incarceration of children as adults is one of the largest government-sanctioned human rights abuses in the world today.

We can and must do better.

The Superpredator Era
& The Mass Incarceration of U.S. Children

A brief increase in crimes committed by children between 1987-1994 led to a concerted effort to dehumanize children of color in order to violate their human rights. The press fed the narrative by depicting ‘teen killers’ and ‘young thugs’ primarily as children of color. Children of color appeared in crime news significantly more than white youth. This narrative led to a wave of draconian policies that were rooted, in part, by racism. As a result, over a six-year period beginning in 1993, the number of children housed in adult jails more than doubled.

While the incarceration rate of people sent to prison as children remained fairly consistent across racial demographics before 1990, there was a massive increase in the number of Black children who remain incarcerated for offenses that occurred over the past 30 years.

The Human Rights Abuses Children Suffer

The severe harms that children face when placed in adult jails and prisons have been well-documented. They include physical and sexual violence, solitary confinement, lack of mental health treatment, lack of educational programming, and isolation from family. These forms of child abuse are human rights abuses and frequently follow children as they age and become adults in prison.

State Breakdown of Children in Adult Prisons

We are currently incarcerating approximately 32,359 individuals in our prisons for crimes they committed as children. Some were so young they were still subject to truancy laws, and an astonishing number weren’t even teenagers. They comprise a full 3.1% of the United States’ overall prison population – the equivalent of an entire prison full of children in every state in the country. We have failed these children on a national level. But children in some states fare far worse than in others.

Report Findings

Please scroll through the multiple graphs below for deeper insight into our discoveries.

A Crime Against Humanity

Our findings have unearthed evidence suggesting that the United States’ treatment of children as adults in the criminal justice system is not only a violation of international law, but may also constitute a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. We believe further investigation by the United Nations and the international community is therefore warranted.
The deliberate and widespread practice of trying children in the adult criminal justice system and, consequently, exposing them to additional human rights violations prohibited under international law, such as the death penalty (before it was banned), life without the possibility of parole, physical and sexual violence in adult jails and prisons, and long-term placement in solitary confinement meets this standard.

There can be no keener
revelation of a society’s soul
than the way in which it treats
its children.

-Nelson Mandela

Our Partners

Thank you to the many organizations and individuals who made this report possible.
We would also like to thank Richard Ross and Juvenile In-Justice for providing the imagery and testimonials included in the report.