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How Old Do You Have to Be to Go to Prison?

The minimum age a person can be sentenced to prison depends on the jurisdiction and nature of the crime. Most countries set age minimums between 14-18 years for incarceration in adult correctional facilities. However, strict guidelines regulate juvenile sentencing. This article examines the age criteria relevant to imprisonment.

Typical Age Minimums for Prison Sentences

The table below shows common minimum ages for adult prison sentences:

CountryMinimum Age for Prison Sentence
United StatesVaries by state, typically age 14-16
United KingdomUsually age 18, exceptions at age 15-17
CanadaMinimum age 14
AustraliaAge 18, exceptions at age 17

So while some juveniles aged 14-17 may enter adult prisons, it is subject to strict restrictions. Standard minimum age is 18 worldwide.

U.S. State-by-State Age Minimums

Since criminal law falls under state jurisdiction in the U.S., the minimum age varies:

  • 2 states have a minimum age of 16 – Georgia, New York
  • 9 states use minimum age 15
  • 29 states have age minimums of 14
  • 10 states have no specified minimum age
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Federal law only allows juveniles 15 and up to be sentenced to prison in limited cases involving violence or weapons.

Requirements for Juveniles Under 18

While prisons can incarcerate offenders under age 18 in some jurisdictions, strict requirements apply:

  • Only juveniles convicted of violent felonies or serious repeat crimes face prison.
  • Judges must determine the juvenile is beyond rehabilitation in juvenile detention.
  • Alternatives like probation or youth facility placement are first priorities.
  • Youthful inmates are housed separately from adults where possible.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences cannot apply to juveniles.

So imprisonment of minors is a last resort limited to the most severe crimes and offenders resistant to juvenile rehabilitation.

Age Exceptions Under Adult Sentencing Guidelines

Some jurisdictions allow children as young as 10-13 to be sentenced as adults in extreme cases. However, this almost always results in juvenile detention until age 18. Prison sentencing requires:

  • Extremely serious crime like homicide
  • Psychiatric evidence of adult mental capacity
  • Automatic adult charges based on crime type

The sentencing judge has no discretion in mandatory adult charges for serious offenses committed by juveniles.

International Age Minimum Comparison

The table below summarizes minimum ages for adult prison sentences globally:

RegionTypical Minimum Age
United States14-16 years old
Canada14 years old
United Kingdom18 years old
European Union16-18 years old
China14 years old
Australia18 years old

Globally, age 18 is the predominant standard, with some exceptions permitting prison at age 16-17. No juveniles under age 14 are sentenced directly to adult facilities.


While the predominant global standard is age 18, some juveniles aged 14-17 accused of serious crimes may enter adult prisons in limited jurisdictions. But strict safeguards exist, prioritizing juvenile detention and rehabilitation. Imprisoning minors is an extremely rare last resort, to avoid essentially lost lives from overly punitive sentences. While youth may legally go to prison, the focus is rehabilitation, not punishment.

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FAQs on Age and Prison Sentences

What is the youngest female ever incarcerated?

In 1821, Hannah Ocuish was sentenced to hang at age 12 for murder in Connecticut, USA. She remains the youngest female legally executed.

Can youth be sentenced to life without parole?

In 2012, the U.S. made mandatory life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. But judges can still impose this sentence.

Where are youthful inmates housed in prison?

Those under 18 are held in separate youthful offender units when available. Some juveniles end up isolated in protective custody.

What additional legal protections exist for incarcerated youth?

Juveniles have additional rights involving education, mental health treatment, protection from abuse, and parole eligibility.

Are prisons or juvenile detention centers better for youth?

Evidence shows juvenile facilities have more resources for rehabilitation and education to avoid lost futures.

What happens when inmates commit crimes as juveniles but aren’t released until adulthood?

If entering prison before age 18, they must still be housed separately from adult inmates when possible.

Can imprisoned youth be released early for good behavior?

Yes, parole boards can authorize earlier release for juveniles exhibiting rehabilitation, typically by age 21.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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