What Uganda Can Teach Us About Juvenile Justice

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Jim Gash is a Professor of Law and directs Pepperdine's Global Justice Program.

The health of a nation's soul can be measured by how it treats its youth.

Do we protect, educate, and carefully mold them into responsible adults? When they behave badly, do we prematurely thrust them into adulthood or do we engage in the vital work of restoration and rehabilitation?

Different nations answer these questions differently. In my role as director of Pepperdine Law School's Global Justice Program, I am aware of best practices in dozens of countries. This global perspective also provides me a window into the weaknesses and failings of justice systems around the world, including our own.

The United States' highest court just considered Montgomery v. Louisiana, and it highlighted critical contrasts in juvenile justice.

Nine months ago, I accompanied five Ugandan prison officials in my role as Specialist Advisor to the High Court of Uganda on a visit to Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary — the largest maximum security prison in the United States. The goal of this study tour was to learn more about that prison's recent success in faith-based identity transformation among the inmates.

While the Ugandans took home strategies for improving vocational training and rehabilitation of adult prisoners, they left behind questions about how we treat juvenile offenders in America. Our Ugandan guests were shocked to learn that juveniles who commit serious offenses in the United States are often charged, tried, and sentenced as adults. They even initially refused to believe that a fourteen year-old could be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which is still the case in many of our states.

The Ugandan officials were also alarmed to learn that juvenile offenders in the United States who are sentenced as adults are often incarcerated with adults as they serve these sentences. This is strictly outlawed in Uganda and in many other nations throughout the world

In a country where civil wars and epidemics have left it with the lowest median age of any country in the world (15), Uganda has no choice but to believe its children are the future.

"In Uganda, we think children are different. We do not give up on them so easily," one warden remarked gravely.

Indeed, the maximum sentence allowed by Ugandan law for any crime committed by a juvenile is three years.

If Uganda treated juveniles charged with serious offenses as adults, my life would be very different today. I first visited that country in 2010 and met twenty-one kids in a juvenile prison as our small team of lawyers helped expedite a backlog of cases. This is where I met sixteen year-old Henry, accused of two murders he didn't commit. Our work on his behalf transformed my life and ultimately reformed Uganda's criminal justice system. I never would have met Henry had Ugandan law allowed him to be charged as an adult.

Jim Gash (right), professor of law at Pepperdine and author of "Divine Collision," and Henry.

While the recent Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana retroactively invalidating mandatory sentences imposed against juveniles was a step in the right direction, the Court is neither empowered nor equipped to reformulate state statutes all over the country. These decades-old laws are willfully blind to neuro science, social science, and foundational religious teachings about human nature.

Cutting edge scientific research in brain development increasingly (and overwhelmingly) confirms what we all instinctively know — the teenage brain is markedly less capable of making rational judgments than when it is fully developed. This is precisely why juveniles are precluded from serving on juries, voting, or drinking alcohol. In fact, as persuasively argued in Meg Jay's thoughtful book "The Defining Decade," cognitive development actually continues in earnest well into our twenties. We must adjust our laws to reflect our science.

Likewise, numerous recent studies grounded in empirical research demonstrate that adult and juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated and rejoin society successfully. In a number of broad-based, longitudinal studies conducted by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, Dr. Byron Johnson and his colleagues demonstrate that faith-based rehabilitation efforts focusing on identity transformation in the prisoners materially reduces recidivism rates.

And we must remember that foundational religious teachings across the centuries and around the globe embrace both the uniqueness of youth and the value of redemption.

In the Bible we read these words from the Apostle Paul: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

We can offer wayward young people an alternate path to lifelong incarceration and demonstrate to the world that we cherish the God-given potential for greatness in every young life. Foolish children can become wise adults.

The time has come for Americans to reassert what we all believe — children are different from adults and they are worth our best efforts to protect them, educate them, and whenever possible, to restore their future. The soul of our nation depends upon it.

Jim Gash is a Professor of Law at Pepperdine University and directs Pepperdine's Global Justice Program. He is the author of Divine Collision: An African Boy, An American Lawyer, and Their Remarkable Battle for Freedom and is featured in the forthcoming documentary "REMAND"