How “Raising the Age” Is Transforming Youth Justice

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.

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". . . young people of color are grossly overrepresented in the justice system." The phrase 'justice system' seems to indicate jurisprudence, i.e administrative. I don't believe the article means to express 'young people of color' are a disproportionate demographic of the administrative but rather they compose a disproportionate demographic of the criminal or alledged criminal. To put it simply, wouldn't 'young people of color are grossly overrepresented in the criminal system' be more correct than 'young people of color are grossly overrepresented in the justice system'?

Boy, I hope the Wisconsin Legislature takes up this issue, but the Republicans who hold the majority seem interested only in more incarceration, not less. Meanwhile, the State Court of Appeals just ruled than an adult can be charged as an adult for an offense committed when he was nine years old.

That is not progress.

Being raised in a single-parent home is the best predictor of incarceration, and that ratio is consistent across races.

Child offenders in adult prison system look up to hardened criminals and learn from them ... allow them to undergo a reform system with the hope to change for the better

I thought there were only two states that still prosecuted 16/17 year olds as adults.

it is important child offenders be treated and tried in court separately from adult criminals to avoid them being conformed to bad habits and caharacters

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