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Guest Commentary

A 12-year-old is not an adult. Missouri must reject law to put children in adult prison


What were you doing when you were 15 years old? 16 years old? Thinking about a crush? Putting off homework? In 1990, when I was just 15, Korey Wise and I were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime we did not commit: the brutal beating and rape of 28-year-old Trisha Meili in the notorious Central Park jogger case in New York City.

As two of the “Exonerated Five,” we know all too well the devastation that comes when children are treated as adults. Although we were both charged with the same crime, we had vastly different experiences. At 16, Korey, the oldest of us, was charged and sentenced as an adult.

Missouri is currently attempting to pass Senate Bill 1 mandating that children as young as 12 years old charged with gun-related offenses have a hearing to determine whether they will be tried in adult criminal court. This bill, like the law used to convict Korey as an adult, has been proposed as a response to a series of violent crimes committed by minors and the public outcry to address community violence.

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But we know that violence is not the answer to violence. We know the violence and harm that will come if this bill is passed.

Four of the Exonerated Five were charged as children and sentenced to time in juvenile facilities. Korey was convicted in the adult system and sentenced to five to 15 years in an adult prison.

Still a child, small and vulnerable, Korey was incarcerated with fully developed adult men, many of whom had committed serious violent crimes. Indeed, while in prison, he was incarcerated with Matias Reyes, the person who ultimately confessed to beating and raping Meili.

In the almost 12 years Korey spent in an adult prison before we were exonerated by DNA evidence, he was repeatedly beaten and abused. He was nearly stabbed to death.

His experience is not unique. Violence is rampant in jails and prisons, and young people who are placed in adult facilities are extremely vulnerable to being victimized by violence. Children in adult rather than juvenile facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and two times more likely to be beaten by correctional staff.

Because these assaults happen so frequently, children in adult prisons are often placed in solitary confinement for their own protection. It was no different for Korey. He spent years in solitary to escape the violence. But that is another kind of abuse, a barbaric mental torture. Placing children in solitary confinement only exacerbates their vulnerability, increasing their suffering and subsequent mental health needs. Children in adult prisons are five times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities, because they are not receiving the emotional and mental health supports they need.

The time the rest of us spent in a juvenile facility was nothing short of torture, separated from our loved ones, pulled from our schools, robbed of an opportunity to develop as other children do. But the additional abuse Korey was forced was unimaginable.

There is nothing to be gained by treating children as adults. Neuroscience shows that children’s brains are not developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions or to communicate effectively in their own defense. As happened in our case, young people are three times more likely than adults to make false confessions.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that controls reasoning, is not fully developed until we are into our 20s. Treating children as if they are hardened criminals, locking them up with adults and throwing away the key, is not only morally wrong — it goes against everything scientists have learned since our exonerations.

We urge Missouri lawmakers to reject Senate Bill 1, which is scheduled to be heard Wednesday. The answer to violence is not more violence. No child, guilty or innocent, should suffer what Korey went through. No child should be denied his or her developing humanity. No child should be treated as a lost cause, deserving of sustained abuse. While children are capable of committing horrible acts of violence, the response from the state should never be to affirm and commit more violence. Rather, the state should model our shared values of accountability and mercy. Senate Bill 1 would do the opposite.

Yusef Salaam was incarcerated for six years and eight months for a rape and assault he did not commit. He coauthored this with Korey Wise, who served more than 11 years for the same crimes before being exonerated.

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