As a public elementary school teacher in San Jose for 14 years, I have learned that prosecuting children as adults is ill-advised and inhumane.
We must do better with our children.
On Feb. 25, the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld SB 1391, a law that prohibits prosecuting 14- and 15-year-olds as adults. Several California prosecutors, including Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, challenged this law. Had their misguided challenges succeeded, many young children, predominantly Latinx and Black youth, would have faced incarceration in the adult criminal system.
Childhood matters. We should treat children differently from adults because they are in fact different. Our response to children who commit crimes must be rooted in science and compassion—not vengeance and fear.
Research shows that young people who have done harm fare better in the juvenile system. They are less likely to commit new crimes when they are given age-appropriate treatment and education in that system.
Many young offenders are themselves victims of abuse and neglect. Many have disabilities, live in poverty, are unhoused, have behavioral issues, and have survived trauma. In this way, they are very much like some of the students in my classroom.
Every school year I greet 30 new, young students with great potential. Many also have challenges and disadvantages that most of us have not experienced.
Many of my students are one, two, three or even four years behind the benchmarks for their grade level. One or two students (and sometimes more) have already been labeled as “troublemakers” and “disruptive.”
These students need the most attention. They do not need to be isolated, shamed, reprimanded or sent to the principal’s office or another room for punishment.
These students need extra help—just as the children who commit crimes need the services provided in the juvenile system instead of being detained as adults in a system that only inflicts more damage.
I know from experience it is the rare child who does not respond to attention and special services. I could share many examples, but one student in particular stands out. He came to my classroom three years behind in learning and with a three-year legacy of being a serious disciplinary problem. I gave him as much extra attention as I could without taking away too much time from my other 29 students.
It helped, but it was not enough.
Fortunately, that year I also had a volunteer who donated a day every week to my classroom. I asked her to focus on this student by helping him with reading and math, and by giving him extra support and encouragement as well as small rewards for his progress. By the end of the year, this student had caught up and was at grade level. And his disruptive behavior and anger had all but disappeared.
He became a class leader and a role model.
It is critical we give young people an opportunity for rehabilitation by keeping them in the juvenile justice system. The California Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed that children, even those who commit serious crimes, are different.
They need love, support, and treatment, not prison and punishment.
SB 1391 is a great start, but Jeff Rosen and other California district attorneys still charge and punish 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Let’s take the next step and stop prosecuting all minors as adults. Doing so will be good for them, and good for society.
Ryan Garcia-Ganan teaches elementary school for the San Jose Unified School District. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].