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October is National Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM), and Boys Town is observing and supporting this event by continuing our advocacy efforts for children who are unfairly charged as adults in the criminal justice system.

The Campaign for Youth Justice started YJAM in 2009 to promote activism on this critical issue and provide people across the country with opportunities to take action in their communities. The movement was inspired by a Missouri mother who became an advocate for reform after her 17-year-old son took his own life following his sentencing as an adult to prison time.

Unfair treatment of children in the criminal justice system is nothing new. Boys Town has a long and proud history of helping these children and working toward change.

For 30 years after he founded Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan traveled the country to advocate for dozens of youngsters who were being prosecuted as adults for serious crimes, including murder. Father Flanagan defended these boys not to excuse their actions, but rather to impress upon the authorities the fact that they were children who were unfairly being treated as adults, even though they did not possess the maturity, logic and decision-making capabilities of adults.

Father Flanagan was committed to saving children on two fronts. He provided a home for homeless children at Boys Town, where they received a quality education, learned a trade and prepared for life as productive adults. He also was driven to change America's child care and judicial systems, systems that for years had allowed and abetted the cruel treatment of children in orphanages, the forced labor of children in workhouses and the unfair prosecution of children in adult courts.      

The rehabilitation and revival of young lives became Father Flanagan's mission in life. Far ahead of his time, he understood how children were affected by the trauma of abuse and neglect, and why they sometimes lashed out to protect themselves or someone important to them. Simply put, they were kids, and they thought and behaved like kids.

Since Father Flanagan's day, our country has made great strides in improving the way children are treated and valued. The revolution Father Flanagan ignited when he founded Boys Town more than 100 years ago has produced seminal changes in our systems of care, especially for girls and boys who are at-risk for or suffer from behavioral or mental health disorders.

Unfortunately, though, we have not come far enough. There are still states with outdated laws that allow children to be charged as adults for alleged criminal behavior. And today, we know through research that the part of the brain that controls decision-making does not fully develop until a person is in his or her 20s, further reinforcing the need for a different approach to holding children and adolescents accountable for their actions.

A criminal justice system that prosecutes children as if they were adults is a flawed system and must be changed.

In the months and years to come, I will be engaging with jurisdictions across our great country to stand with children who have been charged with serious criminal offenses in adult courts. Boys Town's research tells us there are a variety of circumstances that may have contributed to their crimes, including abuse or neglect, trauma, fetal alcohol syndrome or undiagnosed mental and emotional health problems. We will consult with all relevant parties, including the families of these youth, to seek the best path toward healing and justice. When we believe a child can benefit from the treatment and rehabilitative services Boys Town can provide, we will offer our support.

Here are just a few examples of youth who overcame involvement in the criminal justice system when they were given a second chance at Boys Town:

  • Diana was a teenager living in a drug house when a dealer murdered a man in the residence. After being arrested, she came to Boys Town's residential program. She graduated high school with honors, earned two master's degrees and currently works for a law firm and owns a consulting business.
  • Arrested at 15 for selling crack, Jim was placed at Boys Town instead of going to jail. Today, he's a college graduate, an award-winning author and a national advocate for juvenile justice reform. 
  • Isaac seemed destined for a life of incarceration after beating another boy. Boys Town intervened, and Isaac is now a college student on scholarship. 

Today, more than ever, in our polarized, too-quick-to-condemn culture, we must ensure there is always room for compassion for children. The stories of children hurting others are heart-wrenching. But society must keep moving toward effective solutions that focus on treating kids like kids. As legislators and decision-makers struggle with the issue of children accused of serious crimes, they must follow the science and neuroscience research and choose redemption and rehabilitation.

Given the right care, treatment and support, no child is beyond hope.