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Snapshot of State Reforms to Remove Youth from Adult Criminal Court

Posted in 2013, Federal Update Wednesday, 24 April 2013

By Liz Ryan

At a recent event in New York, “In Search of Meaningful Systemic Justice for Adolescents in New York” hosted by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, I gave an update on the trends in juvenile justice reforms as they relate to youth in adult criminal court and youth in adult jails and prisons.

During the past eight years, approximately twenty states have enacted more than thirty pieces of legislation to reduce the prosecution of youth in adult criminal court and end the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons.  These reforms have been undertaken in all regions of the country and have been led by republican and democratic policymakers.  CFYJ issued a report in 2011, “State Trends: Legislative Victories from 2005 to 2012 Removing Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System” authored by Neelum Arya documenting many of these reforms and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) released "Juvenile Justice Trends in State Legislation, 2001 - 2011",  in August, 2012 highlighting reforms over the previous decade.

Overall, the states have moved away from prosecuting youth in the adult criminal court and placement in adult jails and prisons, and towards providing access for children to improved rehabilitation and treatment services in the juvenile justice system.  In the past eight years, we’ve seen four major trends.

Several states have raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to age 18.  Connecticut was recently featured in a report, “Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth”, highlighting how it achieved this success.  Illinois removed 17 year olds charged with misdemeanors.  The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission recently reported on the success of this effort and recommended that Illinois update its law in 2013 to remove 17 year olds charged with felony offenses, which can be viewed here. Mississippi also removed most 17 year olds from automatic prosecution in adult court, and Massachusetts and North Carolina’s lawmakers are considering ‘raise the age’ proposals in their 2013 legislative sessions.

More than a dozen states have changed their transfer/waiver laws to keep more youth in juvenile court.  These efforts have focused on providing judges more discretion to consider whether a youth’s case should be considered in adult criminal court and have dealt with felony cases as well as younger offenders.  States enacting these reforms include, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, Virginia and Washington.  In 2013 legislative sessions, efforts are underway in Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada and Oregon, and Maryland has enacted a task force to examine this issue.

And, ten states have changed their laws to remove youth from pretrial placement in adult jails and/or placement in adult prisons under the age of eighteen.  These states include, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.  Indiana just passed legislation in its 2013 session to remove youth from adult prisons.

Finally, a handful of states have changed their sentencing laws as they apply to youth.  These include Colorado, Georgia, Texas and Washington.  Oregon is considering legislation in its 2013 session.

As we’ve had the opportunity to work with so many allies in these states, there are many lessons learned from these successful efforts.  Here are just a few:

First, in these state reform efforts, state research and analysis has played a significant role in informing policymakers.  In a number of these states, state experts researched and wrote reports that looked at the state law and available data, and interviewed directly affected youth and their families.  These reports provided insights on the issue, identified problems and created a platform for reform.  We’ve highlighted many of these reports on our website here.

Second, the recidivism research showing that youth are more likely to re-offend when prosecuted in adult criminal court has proved invaluable.  Policymakers are most interested in the impact of public safety when they consider policy reforms on juvenile justice.

Third, the public strongly supports these kinds of reforms, seeing the issue as one of fairness and humane treatment of children.  Public opinion polling conducted by GBA strategies in 2011 shows that the public strongly supports rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration and automatic prosecution in adult criminal court, favors judicial decision-making and supports reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.  In this and other polling, the public absolutely rejects placing youth in adult jails and prisons, the polling can be found here.

Fourth, a number of these states created study commissions with all the key stakeholders, dedicated resources and staff, and a research and analysis capacity to examine the issue.  These study commissions obtain buy-in from key stakeholders, are a vehicle to create and advance policy recommendations as well as work out differences and monitor implementation of reforms.

Finally, involving directly affected youth and their families in these efforts is essential. Youth and families' voices and perspectives are the most crucial in informing policymakers and educating them on the negative impacts of prosecuting youth in adult criminal court.

As New York and other states consider policies to reduce the prosecution of youth in adult court, developments in these states and the lessons learned offer much to consider.  Thanks to the dedication and hard work of so many organizations and individuals around the country, we anticipate additional reforms in 2013 and beyond.