States “Raise the Floor” to Keep Children Out of Adult Court
September 10, 2019 (Washington, DC): State legislatures across the country are passing laws to “raise the floor” by raising the minimum age at which a child could be prosecuted as an adult, according to a new brief by the Campaign for Youth Justice.
The brief highlights legislative efforts in a variety of states including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont that have raised their minimum age of transfer for at least one of their transfer mechanisms. For some states, including California, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, raising the minimum age resulted in the state getting rid of one of its transfer mechanisms altogether.
Before the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s, most states did not prosecute children under fifteen as adults. However, in the 1990s, in response to the myth of the rise of the juvenile superpredator, several states lowered their minimum age of transfer to adult court and the number of youth prosecuted, sentenced, and incarcerated as adults increased.
The number of youth transferred by juvenile court judges was approximately 6,000 in 1985. The number hit a high of 13,100 by 1994, a 54% increase. By the 2000s, the “tough on crime” pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction as evidence-based approaches to adolescent development began to influence legislation. According to the Campaign, since 2005, 39 states and DC have passed over 100 bills to keep youth out of adult courts, jails, and prisons. During that time period juvenile crime has continued to fall and the number of youth transferred by juvenile court judges has declined from 6,600 in 2005 to 3,800 in 2017.
“These shifts to raise the floor are significant” according to Marcy Mistrett, the Campaign for Youth Justice’s CEO. “However, we must remember that these shifts are not radical, but rather returning states to how they treated youth before the severe ‘tough on crime’ measures took effect. States are righting a wrong by acknowledging that pushing children, literally in some states ten, eleven, and twelve-year-olds, into adult court, is a harmful practice that not only hurts children and their families, but ultimately the community as well.”
The overall number of youth prosecuted as adults as a result of a judicial, prosecutorial, or legislative transfer to adult court has declined as well from 250,000 in the early 2000s to 75,900 in 2015. While the total number of transfers to adult court have declined, it is important to note that children of color, particularly black children, are still disproportionately transferred. While they were approximately 14% of the youth population, black youth were 54% of the youth transferred by juvenile court judges in 2017.
“We have made tremendous progress in reducing the number of children who touch the adult system. However, there is still something fundamentally wrong with the systemic and disproportionate adultification of children of color in our criminal system,” says Mistrett. “We know that treating Black youth as adult has historical roots in racist policies and practices which is why until we can say that no child is at risk of facing an adult court and sleeping in an adult jail, we still have a long way to go to get justice.”