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May 27, 2021

"What's the right age for juvenile criminals to be considered adults? Advocates and some states push it past 20."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent lengthy Des Moines Register piece. Here are excerpts:

Four years ago, juvenile justice advocates celebrated a huge win: North Carolina ended its status as the last state in the nation that automatically considered anyone 16 years old or older an adult in the criminal justice system.  When North Carolina raised the age to 18, the change was more than a dozen years in the making.  Now, advocates are setting their sights — and their desired age limit — higher.

And they're winning.  Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois raised or are looking to increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction through age 20 or created separate courts or parole allowances for those ages 18 to 25.  Similar bills have moved or are being considered in California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Florida.  Backed by evidence of racial disparities, court cases and research showing a person’s brain isn’t fully developed until at least 25, states see kids as kids and emerging adults as not fully developed and still prone to immature behavior.

“We've really seen a reversal of the trend in the ’90s, which was to treat more children as adults — sort of the ‘adult crime and adult time’ mindset,” said Karen Lindell, senior attorney with the Juvenile Law Center.  Studies showed minors sentenced in the adult system not only committed more crimes upon release than peers in the juvenile system but also engaged in more serious crimes, Lindell said.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings struck down the death penalty for juveniles and ended mandatory life without parole in all but homicide cases — then for all crimes.  Faced with the research and those rulings, state officials started looking at trends showing juvenile crime rates were plummeting.  In 2019 — the latest year data is available — minors accounted for the fewest arrests in nearly 40 years, roughly 700,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  The biggest drops in juvenile crime were over the past 10 years — a 58% drop overall and a 40% falloff in violent crime.  By comparison, the department said violent crime among adults was down 7%.

Forty-seven states automatically charge those under 18 as juveniles for all but the most serious offenses, such as murder or sexual assault.  Michigan and Missouri joined the list over the past year.  Michigan is working on the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which would give people ages 17 to 23 the chance to wipe even felonies from their records.  "No state should want to be the last jurisdiction to automatically prosecute and sentence youth under 18 as adults," said Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab.

Officials in the remaining three states — Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas — have considered bumping the cutoff age to 18.  All three states set the age at 17.  It's not just the ceiling for juvenile jurisdiction being raised: The floor is being lifted as more states increase the age at which minors can first enter the juvenile system. Massachusetts set the floor at age 12. Illinois lifted it to 14.

As on most state-level changes, states look to their peers for guidance, said Anne Teigen, the program director for juvenile justice at the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Other state lawmakers are looking at Vermont.  That state set the age of juvenile jurisdiction through age 18 last year, and that limit will increase to 19 in July 2022 and 20 in 2024.  Vermont started moving in the direction of raising the age in 2016, when then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, signed a law enabling anyone 21 or younger charged with a nonviolent crime to be eligible for juvenile offender status....

Recently, Illinois lawmakers have debated a bill that would raise the age for juvenile consideration to those under 21 and separately, a measure to reintroduce parole to the state  — something that was ended in 1978.  Illinois, like other states, says adulthood begins at 21 for alcohol and tobacco use, so the same age should be applied to criminal behavior, said state Sen. Laura Fine, a Democrat.  "Their brains are not fully developed," Fine said. "And if you put yourself in their position, think of what you did when you were 18. A lot of people were lucky because they did stupid things, and they didn't get caught."

Many law enforcement organizations oppose the move, and the bill, which won early support, stalled as lawmakers worked on other major criminal justice changes, such as getting rid of cash bail.  "We think that what people do when they're 20 or 21 is quite a bit different from what people do when they're 13 and 14.  And the kinds of opportunities that we give to 13- and 14-year-olds seem rather appropriate most of the time," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which opposes the measure....

If the Illinois bill becomes law, Columbia University's Chester said, it could swing other states in that direction.  “Illinois would be the second state to move in that direction, but it would be a big deal," Chester said. "As momentous as Vermont is, it's a very small state.  And I think the bigger states, having Illinois with a very large population — the big city of Chicago — that is more influential on the national stage.”

May 27, 2021 at 12:12 PM | Permalink

Comments

Excellent news. And not just for the guilty. People under 21 are also much more susceptible to being wrongfully convicted, due to their lack of worldly knowledge, their misplaced trust in authority, and their lack of financial resources to fight false charges.

I was falsely convicted of an office burglary at age 20. The police had me half convinced that I was criminally insane, since I had no memory of the crime for which they falsely insisted they had overwhelming proof of my guilt. My innocence was later proven, but that was legally irrelevant due to Virginia's notorious "21 day rule." So I'm still a convicted felon today, despite having an otherwise perfectly clean record before and since, and despite the crime being closer to the time of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd than the present.

Posted by: Keith Lynch | May 30, 2021 9:33:31 AM

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