Written by: CFYJ policy intern Nils Franco
In five states, legislators and governors alike are calling for new action this year to allow 16- and 17-year-olds back into the juvenile justice system, where youth can receive much-needed, age-appropriate rehabilitative or educational services. In two more states, lawmakers recently proposed including young adults under 21 in the juvenile justice system.
In nine states across the country, the juvenile justice system has an unusual upper age limit – that is, the juvenile system entirely excludes youth after their 17th or even 16th birthday. No matter the crime an older child is accused of committing in these states, the state handles the case entirely in the adult justice system.
These counterproductive state-based policy changes occurred in the late 1990’s, and reform took root just a few years ago. Five states have raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to cover all ages under 18 in seven years. Connecticut started the trend in 2009, and Mississippi, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New Hampshire followed in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively. This year, with a strong basis for action, so-called “Raise the Age” reform seems to be spreading quickly.
Lawmakers in five of the remaining nine states – Louisiana, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, and South Carolina – have proposed legislation to bring 16- and 17-year-olds back under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system.
In Connecticut, the same governor who oversaw the state’s 2009 Raise the Age reform now calls to further expand juvenile jurisdiction up until a young adult’s 21st birthday. In Illinois, which also implemented Raise the Age reform, a four-committee hearing on raising the age further to 21 prompted Rep. Laura Fine to sponsor one bill to bring misdemeanor cases for young adults under age 21 to juvenile court, and another to bring all cases for adults under age 21 to the juvenile system.
After Louisiana Senator JP Morrell introduced Raise the Age legislation (SB 322) last week, Governor Edwards and Louisiana Chief Justice Johnson announced their support for the bill. Edwards included the bill in his 2016 legislative agenda, and Johnson argued favorably for the bill in her State of the Judiciary address. This reform comes after years of advocacy from a coalition of state-based groups, and after the state’s legislature asked Louisiana State University to study the problem last year. That report published in February and found that reform “would benefit public safety, promote youth rehabilitation, and create long-term savings.”
Governor Cuomo of New York (where juvenile jurisdiction ends after a youth’s 16th birthday) proposed Raise the Age language in his budget proposal and listed raising the age among his State of the State priorities for the coming year. Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizen’s Commission for Children of New York, hailed the governor’s advocacy, noting the state’s age-inappropriate jurisdictional age limit “increases recidivism and reduces the chance for youth to turn their lives around. We can and must do better for our youth and our communities.”
Reform also made its way to South Carolina, where Senate Bill 916, introduced by Democratic Senator Gerald Malloy, will raise the age to 18 and expand the rights of youth to have their case reviewed. That bill was recently referred to a subcommittee chaired by Malloy, who in February discussed past work to separate minors from adults in adult facilities. “We just have to keep changing minds,” Malloy remarked at a panel event.
Missouri’s legislature will also consider Raise the Age legislation among five other bills in both the state house and state senate. The Raise the Age bill, HB 1812, was introduced by Republican representative Ron Hicks. Hicks also successfully passed Jonathan’s Law, another CFYJ-supported bill, unanimously in the 2013 House session.
In Michigan, an impressive 20 bills introduced in this session of the House of Representatives would reform the transfer of youth to the adult criminal justice system. Taking a piecemeal approach, eight of these bills would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in the state from youths’ 17th birthday to their 18th birthday.
The editorial board of The Detroit News describes the bills as “an important step in the quest to reform Michigan’s criminal justice system.” Noting that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has not yet endorsed the package, the board reminds readers that “what Michigan has been doing in terms of juvenile justice is not working.” A similar editorial from the Battle Creek Enquirer calls Raise the Age “a rare issue that can unite Republican and Democratic lawmakers.”
Across Lake Michigan, Wisconsin legislators moved this year to capitalize on that rare bipartisan momentum, introducing bicameral legislation to stop sending first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old offenders automatically to the adult justice system.
This year’s reform opportunities offer states a unique ability to limit children’s needless exposure to trauma, abuse, and criminality in adult prisons and jails. The juvenile justice system offers youth the resources needed to overcome traumatic experiences and rehabilitate after committing an offense.
Children have a particularly strong psychological capacity to learn from past decisions, if the opportunity is allowed. Creating more childhood trauma in a prison setting will do the opposite. Raise the Age legislation is therefore common sense: children cannot be funneled into the adult criminal justice system without long-term consequences to the youth, their communities, and to public safety.
Meanwhile, two remaining states – North Carolina, and Texas – are likely to introduce reforms in upcoming legislative sessions, especially as local organizations continue to underscore the unjust and counterproductive effects of nonstandard jurisdictional age limits.
On the other hand, Georgia’s legislature and governor have not yet acted or expressed interest in moving toward reform. In contrast with the leadership shown across the country by other states, Georgia’s leaders stand out in their inaction.
This article was updated on March 22nd to include new actions from Louisiana's legislature, governor, and chief justice.