Over a century ago, reformers in Chicago initiated a series of policies based on the progressive concept that children are different and deserve special treatment. The progressive movement involved extensive collaboration with reformers in Europe.
Jane Addams and other Chicago reformers brought back the concept of a “kindergarten” from progressives in Germany and established a settlement house (Hull House) in Chicago modeled after Toynbee House in London. Chicago, however, bears the proud title of establishing the world’s first juvenile court in 1899, with the British following suit in 1903 and Germany in 1908.
In this same spirit of learning from the successes of others beyond our borders, we should embrace some of the successful practices and policies for young adults in conflict with the law from our counterparts in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Across Illinois and around the globe, research consistently establishes that young people age out of criminal offending. Age arrest curves demonstrate a sharp decrease in criminal conduct in the early 20s. Simply put, young people naturally age out of delinquent behavior in their early 20s.
After World War II, there was concern over a generation of young Germans growing up without fathers. Acknowledging their lack of adult parental figures and believing that young people grow out of criminal behavior, the German government extended juvenile court for young people up to age 21, and extended the possibility of juvenile treatment up to age 24.
The result: Individual treatment of young offenders up to their early 20s was so successful that it remains in place today. No German below age 21 is tried in adult court, and the maximum sentence for any offense is 15 years. Youth facilities are “normalized” with extensive movement in and out of the community for school and work — more like our group homes than prisons.
The results are clear. Relying on individual treatment with use of humane facilities as a last resort results in lower recidivism, based on all the evidence that young people grow out of criminal behavior.
The Netherlands and the United Kingdom took note of Germany’s success with young adults and are modeling reforms after the German policies. In the U.K., a series of pilot programs has demonstrated similar success utilizing juvenile diversion and treatment programming for young adults. The U.K. pilots have been evaluated and the results are posted on the Transition to Adulthood website.
Lengthy incarceration of young adults — the ones not yet aged out of criminal behavior — also is costly for taxpayers. For instance, 4,011 young adults (ages 18-21) were admitted to the Cook County (Ill.) Jail in 2013 for misdemeanor offenses. At a conservative $140 a day (it was $143 in 2013), that cost more than half a million dollars.
Rather than jail young adults for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses, the U.S. could follow this international movement and replicate successful juvenile diversion practices for young adults. In my home state of Illinois, both the police and probation have opportunities to divert juvenile cases through adjustments that could include counseling and community service.
These diversion practices proved their success when Illinois raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and brought 17-year-olds back to the juvenile court. Both detention and prison numbers went down due to diversion at the front end. Similarly, juvenile detention alternatives have been proved successful throughout the nation.
It is time for the U.S. to replicate the use of juvenile diversion and sentencing options, including community-based restorative justice, for young adults in conflict with the law.
Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group working to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.