Youth Justice Project

The Youth Justice Project works to reform laws and policies that criminalize youth and to promote alternatives that respect the human rights of youth and encourage their constructive future engagement with their communities.

Issue: In the United States, there is no constitutional provision or national law prohibiting states from subjecting children under age 18 to the adult criminal justice system, imposing adult criminal sentences, or incarcerating children in adult prison facilities. As a result each year approximately 200,000 children are tried as adults and on any given day thousands are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. In addition to the human rights violations inherent in trying and imposing criminal punishments on children, once in the adult system, children in adult jails and prisons face disproportionately high rates of physical and sexual abuse and solitary confinement.

The majority of children tried in the adult criminal justice system are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses. In nine states, 17 year olds are automatically tried and sentenced as adults no matter the charge, and in two of those states, New York and North Carolina, 16 year olds are automatically tried and sentenced as adults.

International law recognizes that children in conflict with the law have the right to special protection because of their youth. Because of the long-term detrimental impacts that adult criminal punishments can have during a crucial time in the development of youth, international human rights standards call for youth to be treated as youth, and not as adults.

Our Project: YJP works at the international level to raise scrutiny and criticism of U.S. incarceration of youth in adult jails and prisons and at the local level to use human rights standards to support reform efforts. The project documents and analyzes state and federal laws and policies that violate human rights standards for U.N. and regional human rights bodies. It provides expert testimony about international standards to state and local officials and technical assistance to policy makers and activists developing proposals for reform. The project also raises awareness of youth justice and human rights issues through public education and media work. The project is led by IWHR Director Cynthia Soohoo and IWHR fellow JM Kirby.



    NYC Board of Correction

  • IWHR Report for the New York City Board of Correction: International Human Rights Standards Regarding Youth in New York City Jails, (Nov. 18, 2014) <pdf>
  • JM Kirby, IWHR Testimony Before the New York City Board of Correction (Dec. 19, 2014) <pdf>
  • New York City Council Joint Oversight Hearing, Examining the Treatment of Adolescents in New York City Jails and Reviewing the United States Department of Justice’ Report on Violence at Rikers Island, October 8, 2014

  • Maabo Tsheko and Cameron MacKay, IWHR Testimony (Oct. 8, 2014) <pdf>
  • IWHR Written Submission to New York City Council Oversight Hearing, (Oct. 8, 2014) <pdf>
  • NY State Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice

  • IWHR Report for the NY Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice- International Human Rights Standards: Juvenile Justice Administration and Conditions of Youth Detention (November 26, 2014) <pdf>


    U.N. Universal Periodic Review

  • IWHR Report: Youth Criminally Tried and Incarcerated as Adults - Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the United States of America (September, 2014) <pdf>
  • Torture (U.N. Committee Against Torture)

  • Press Release: U.N. Criticizes U.S. Treatment of Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons (Dec. 1, 2014)
  • IWHR Report: Children in Adult Jails and Prisons (Sept. 22, 2014) <pdf>
  • Racial Discrimination (U.N. Committee Against Racial Discrimination)

  • Press Release: UN Calls on US to Halt Trial and Detention of Youth In the Adult System (Sept. 15, 2014)
  • IWHR Report: Criminalization of Minority Youth (June 30, 2104) <pdf>
  • IWHR Letter to CERD Committee: Incarceration of Youth Under 18 in Adult Jails (Feb. 3, 2014) <pdf>
  • Civil and Political Rights and Rights of the Child (U.N. Human Rights Committee)

  • U.S. Report Card: Youth Justice Issues, UN Human Rights Committee Review, One Year Follow-Up (May 1, 2015) <pdf>
  • Press Release: UN Criticizes US for Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons (March 27. 2014)
  • IWHR Supplemental Submission: Youth Incarcerated in Adult Prisons in the U.S. <pdf>
  • Letter to Human Rights Committee: (Dec. 27, 2012) <pdf>



  • Cynthia Soohoo, Tawakalitu Amusa, Chelsea Guffy, One Year After UN Slammed US on Youth Criminalization, How Are We Doing? (May 20, 2015)
  • Chelsea Guffy, What the Convention Against Torture Can Teach Us About Children’s Rights (January 13, 2015)
  • Tawakalitu Amusa, U.N. Calls out U.S. on Police Violence, Criminalization of Youth of Color (Dec. 8, 2104)
  • Cynthia Soohoo, Emerging Issues – Human Rights, Immigration, Employment Law and Gender Theory, Teach-In On The Prison Rape Elimination Act (June 23, 2014)
  • Cynthia Soohoo, Protecting Incarcerated Youth from Sexual Violence, Brian.Lehrer.TV (June 17, 2014)
  • Cynthia Soohoo, State Resistance to Elimination of Prison Rape (May 26, 2014)
  • Nell Hirschmann-Levy and Meghan McLoughlin, Children’s Lives at Stake: U.S. Policies of Incarcerating Children in Adult Correctional Facilities (May 1, 2014)
  • Cynthia Soohoo, Juveniles in Solitary Confinement: Rehabilitation or Torture? Cardozo Law School Symposium (Feb. 13, 2014)
  • Cassie Fleming and Bianca Capellini, International Human Rights Committee Criticizes Abuse of Michigan Youth (April 22, 2103)
  • Cindy Soohoo, Minors Incarcerated in Adult Prisons, Late Shift with Tony Trupiano Radio Show (March 15 2013)

Bianca Cappellini ’13, Anlyn Addis and Deborah LaBelle of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, Cynthia Soohoo, Mik Kinkead ’13 and Cassie Fleming ’13 at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington, DC.