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How “Raising the Age” Is Transforming Youth Justice

Two teen boys in orange uniforms
Two 17-year-old inmates play the card game UNO at the Lafayette Parish jail in Lafayette, Louisiana, in April 19, 2016. © William Widmer/Redux

Over the past decade, advocates have successfully challenged the boundaries of how states define childhood in the context of criminal law. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, which supports these reforms, the number of states that automatically prosecute 16- or 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system has been cut in half, from 14 to just 7.

There are now about half as many youths automatically being handled in the adult system. This is good news for states around the country. Juvenile crime has continued to fall, costs have been kept in check, and thousands of youth have been spared the dangers that come from being placed in adult jails and prisons.

Today, just seven states still automatically handle 16- or 17-year-olds (or both) in the adult criminal justice system, but these states are all currently considering changes as well. In some of the states contemplating raising the age, there are concerns that it will cost too much and juvenile courts will be overwhelmed. Similar concerns were initially expressed in those places that raised the age over the past decade.

A new report by the Justice Policy Institute, Raising the Age: Shifting to a More Effective Juvenile Justice System, addresses these concerns by showing that states which have moved teenagers out of the adult justice system and into the youth justice system have done so in a cost effective and safe way.

The report found that in states like Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts—which had strategies in place to reduce their reliance on expensive youth facilities even before they raised the age—juvenile-corrections costs were kept in check as they began to serve older teenagers. Since it can cost more than $100,000 a year to incarcerate a teenager, shifting to practices that keep more youth at home has allowed states to reallocate resources in more cost-effective ways, reserving the most expensive out-of-home options for the small number of youth who are a serious risk to public safety.

In Illinois, initial concerns that new courtrooms and attorneys would be needed to handle thousands of youth ultimately evaporated, as the state was able to manage the change with existing resources while also closing three costly youth facilities.

There, as in other states that adopted better youth justice policies and raised the age, juvenile crime declined more than the national average. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy observed that his state saw lower adult crime and imprisonment rates after raising the age to 18, saving tens of millions of dollars. Based on these results, Governor Malloy is now calling on the Connecticut legislature to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21.

As with almost every facet of America’s justice system, it is clear that this is a racial justice issue as well. For example, in New York, North Carolina, and Michigan, each of which is contemplating raising the age, young people of color are grossly overrepresented in the justice system.

In New York State, eight out of ten people sentenced to prison are people of color, and nine out of ten young people sentenced to prison from New York City are young people of color. In North Carolina, Black youth account for 62 percent of the young people prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. In Michigan in 2012, 59 percent of youth who were prosecuted in adult court were Black, even though they only made up 18 percent of the youth population statewide.

Knowing that youth of color are disproportionately impacted should provide even more of a sense of urgency, and we have an obligation to implement policies that will treat all youth fairly while at the same time making the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, especially given that the vast majority—80–95 percent, depending on the state—of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in these states are picked up for nonviolent offenses.

We should be doing everything we can to ensure that when a young person has a brush with the law, we increase the likelihood that they can get on the right track, making sure that they are safe and receiving the types of supports and opportunities that anyone would want for their own child. Treating children as children, in a developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system—not in an adult system that puts youth at great risk of harm and leads to more crime—is the right policy for all communities.

As New York, North Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, Wisconsin, and Georgia consider this issue, lawmakers should focus on the best way to give young people a chance to become productive adults who contribute to our communities. The evidence is now in, and it’s clear: raising the age keeps our communities and young people safer, and can be done while keeping costs in check.

The Campaign for Youth Justice and the Justice Policy Institute are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.

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