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June 3, 2016

Former House Speaker (and future Trump running-mate?) Newt Gingrich helps make the case for "raising the age" for adult prosecutions

Regular readers know that Newt Gingrich has become a notable and frequent "right on crime" commentator calling for all sorts of criminal justice reforms in all sorts of settings.  And here we have another example:  this new commentary authored by Gingrich and Pat Nolan, headlined "Don’t train kids to be felons in adult jails," makes the case for limiting the prosecution of teenagers as adults in Louisiana.  Here are excerpts: 

The noted “tough on crime” criminologist John Dilulio once commented that “jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.” Louisiana should heed Dilulio’s caution against locking up young petty criminals alongside violent adult criminals. The Bayou State is one of only nine states that prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults, often for the most minor of crimes (stealing a bag of potato chips, for instance).

We all can agree that breaking the law is wrong and that these teens deserve to face consequences for their actions. But tossing them into adult jails with hardened criminals just makes those bad situations worse. The research and data are clear: Adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around.

Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape and assault, and more likely to commit suicide. They also are likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.

In addition, the damage of this policy continues long after they are released. By treating teens differently from the majority of the country, Louisiana makes it harder for them to grow into successful adults....

Fortunately, the Legislature is working on a bill to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. It would assign most 17-year-olds who commit offenses to the juvenile justice system, where they would be held accountable, continue their schooling, learn critical skills and be prepared to live productive and healthy lives as law-abiding members of society. Prosecutors still would be free to choose to prosecute youth accused of more serious offenses as adults....

Raising the age would make society safer and stronger by doing away with the destructive “one-size-fits-all punishment” system we have now. Adult jails and prisons can turn teens into career criminals, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill. By raising the age of how we punish and reform young people who make minor mistakes, Louisiana will help these kids turn their lives around, will make neighborhoods safer and in the process will save taxpayers money. This is being smart on crime.

As the headline of this post highlights, I think Gingrich's continued advocacy for all sort of criminal justice reform is especially notable and important in light of the fact that he name is being brought up repeatedly as a possible running mate for GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump.  As detailed in a number of posts linked below, Gingrich has had his name on many commentaries in the last few years vocally supporting a wide array of modern state and federal sentencing reform efforts.  If Trump were in fact to select Gingrich as his running mate, I would have to rethink my belief (and fear) that the Trump campaign will be actively opposing most criminal justice reform efforts.

Prior related posts about Gingrich's criminal justice reform advocacy:

June 3, 2016 at 08:50 AM | Permalink


The problem, of course, is that any age chosen is somewhat arbitrary. Different people mature differently (putting to the side the arguments loosely based on brain science). Historically, the dividing line between adult and juvenile for different purposes has been all over the map and still is today. You can drive at sixteen, but can't smoke or join the military until eighteen, or drink until twenty-one (with different states having different ideas about when you are old enough to have consensual sex). Should the decision that one is an adult for criminal prosecution be linked to whether the state considers you to be an adult for other purposes?

I also don't know many states that are locking up first time offenders for stealing a bag of potato chips -- whether that first time offender is seventeen, nineteen, or thirty. For the most part, non-violent offenders (particular for misdemeanor offenses) get probation or a small fine. (In my state, which also is one of the ones with seventeen as the dividing line, we have recently made some of these minor offenses into "fine only" offenses, reflecting the actual practice of most prosecutors in the state.) So arguing about seventeen year olds being locked in prison for minor offenses is really a straw man.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 3, 2016 10:37:16 AM

The attorney I now work for has been a criminal defense lawyer for 42 years. He says that jails are just "crime schools" for young offenders, and that no one under 18 should spend more than a week in jail, except for the most serious of offenses, like rape and murder. There are alternative punishments besides incarceration for juveniles.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 3, 2016 10:56:49 AM

"If Trump were in fact to select Gingrich as his running mate, I would have to rethink my belief (and fear) that the Trump campaign will be actively opposing most criminal justice reform efforts."

Ever the optimist.

Anyway, yes, "the decision that one is an adult for criminal prosecution be linked to whether the state considers you to be an adult for other purposes" in some fashion. Line drawing will always lead to various "arbitrary" decisions, but that does seem consistent.

And, I do think there is a reasonable argument that some hard and fast line for constitutional purposes is problematic. Chief Justice Roberts' concurrence in one opinion there was a fair position, however one comes down on it.

As to small time offenders, mixed bag there. Teens are sometimes somehow put into "the system" and it turns out to be but the beginning. It need not be "prison" though can be reformatories, suspension from normal schooling and other troublesome things. The potato chip thing is a case of citing the most extreme example, a usual trope by both sides, but once something is possible there, it turns out to be true that extreme cases can be cited.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 3, 2016 12:00:39 PM

One thing that would be interesting to know is if there are any good studies about the differences in recidivism rates for similar offenders (i.e. same number of priors and same type of offenses) for those placed into juvenile system and those placed into adult system. My impression is that juvenile system is even less functional at rehabilitation than the adult system, at least in my state.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 3, 2016 12:44:10 PM

The problem with letting prosecutors discern, is that there is no discernment, either you should try them as juveniles or not. Race,gender,bias,etc may play a role as well as politics and publicity.

Posted by: pat | Jun 4, 2016 4:12:34 AM

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