Criminology Major Studies What Happens to Juveniles Sentenced to Adult Prisons

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Kelsey McMahon types on her laptop.
Kelsey McMahon is one of 15 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Kelsey McMahon, a student who is passionate about social change and equality, focused her research on how and why juveniles are sentenced to serve time in adult prisons and jails.

“I want to feel like I’m making a difference in the world. I think this is the way to do it – doing research that leads to policy change,” said McMahon, of Chesterfield, Virginia, a first-generation college student and junior double majoring in sociology and criminology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Hoping to pursue a career focused on improving the criminal justice system, McMahon studied the type of legislation that allows judges to send children to adult prisons, what happens to children during their incarceration, and alternative options to prevent children from being sent to adult prisons in the first place.

McMahon is one of 15 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a program created by Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute, in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The program seeks to fund students from underrepresented groups to increase diversity in undergraduate research. Each Fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research over the course of one academic year. Additionally, the Fellows develop a close mentoring relationship with their faculty advisor.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, April 19, the Fellows will present their research at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference in the Moss Arts Center. The Fellows, along with other Virginia Tech students, will be presenting posters and e-portfolios showcasing their work as undergraduate researchers. Dean will kick off the keynote event with a welcome at 11:10 a.m. This event is open to the public. The Moss Arts Center is located at 190 Alumni Mall in Blacksburg.

“I wanted to focus on problems in prisons that I could fix because I know it is a very broad issue. I wanted to take one tiny bit of the giant problem and see if I could do something to fix it,” McMahon said. She began studying prison reform for her independent research project during her semester abroad in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, in a program hosted by the Honors College. “My goal for this project was to stimulate conversation about this issue and open up the floor for debate on whether or not the current prison system is effective. I also want to identify avenues for change in the juvenile justice system and sentencing of minors.”

Since September, McMahon has worked with Donald Shoemaker, a professor specializing in crime and delinquency in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Shoemaker provided his expertise to support McMahon in her study.

McMahon conducted a literature review to gather information on current legislation and the consequences of sentencing juveniles to adult prisons and jails. In 45 states, the maximum age for juvenile sentencing is 17; in the remaining five states, the maximum age is 16.

“State governments started sending children to juvenile detention centers in the 1980s to act as a crime deterrent,” McMahon said. “Since then, the number of juveniles in adult systems has increased.”

McMahon analyzed different state-level transfer laws that allow juveniles to be prosecuted as adults, regardless of their age. She claims that these transfer laws easily allow for children to be placed in adult systems, exacerbating four main problems.

Adult systems do not offer the proper mental health resources to help reform incarcerated youth, which is detrimental to their still-developing minds. Additionally, recidivism – the likelihood of a criminal to reoffend – is higher in juveniles in adult systems because their issues are not addressed by counselors. Minors are also more likely to be sexually abused by other inmates or by prison staff during their incarceration in adult systems. McMahon reports that nearly 2 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds report sexual abuse, but this is likely underreported due to the very serious “snitches get stitches” rule. Finally, juveniles make more dangerous connections with adults in the system, which leads them to join gangs and deal hard drugs upon release.

“I think there should be more uniform federal laws, instead of states determining the fate of juveniles. I also think that juveniles should go through the juvenile system – adult systems are not meant for children,” McMahon said.

Pending approval by the Institutional Review Board, McMahon hopes to continue her research by conducting interviews with formerly incarcerated individuals, juvenile prosecutors, and judges experienced in juvenile sentencing. Upon graduation in 2020, McMahon plans to pursue a master’s degree in sociology and continue the research she began as a Fralin Fellow.

McMahon will present her latest findings alongside her Fralin Fellow cohort and other undergraduate Virginia Tech researchers at the symposium on April 19.

“My favorite part of this fellowship was meeting the other fellows and learning about how they turned their passion into research. It was great to see others, especially underrepresented students, invested in research,” McMahon said. “The Fralin Fellowship is very inclusive and shows that representation does matter.”

Written by Rasha Aridi