Consider just a few recent developments in diverse regions of the country. In the last few weeks, legislatures in Louisiana and South Carolina passed bills — awaiting their governors’ signatures — to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18. Michigan will soon vote on a similar bill. In Indiana, lawmakers approved giving youth more chances to avoid adult prosecution. Vermont scaled back prosecutors’ power to “direct file” children in adult court this session, and California Gov. Jerry Brown is backing a ballot initiative this year to eliminate prosecutorial direct file altogether and return discretion for transfer decisions to judges.
From our vantage point at the Public Welfare Foundation, where we support many advocacy groups working to keep youth out of the adult system, this is welcome news. Policies that treat youth as adults simply do not work and, research shows, actually lead to increased recidivism rates.
Youth in the adult system also face high rates of sexual abuse and suicide in adult facilities, denial of appropriate rehabilitative and education services, and the diminished education and job prospects and other collateral consequences that come with a criminal record. The racial justice implications are particularly sobering: African-American youth, for example, are nine times more likely to be sentenced to adult prison than their white counterparts.
While far too many youth are still subjected to these harmful policies, this year’s activities reflect a sea change. In the last decade, more than 30 states have adopted important reforms — with bipartisan support. This progress is especially remarkable considering it was not so long ago that states moved en masse in the opposite direction. During the “tough on crime” frenzy of the 1990s, almost every state passed policies making it easier to try youth as adults. In a relatively short timeframe, states have begun reversing course.
Reform trends cannot easily be explained by a single factor, but advocates’ relentless, sophisticated work has significantly propelled this movement. The national effort to end the practice of trying and sentencing youth as adults began when the Campaign for Youth Justice launched in 2005.
Back then, the goal of dismantling this practice was quite audacious, given how enthusiastically policymakers promoted tough on crime policies. But for some visionary advocates and families whose children had experienced the horrors of adult prosecution, the issue was too urgent to cede to the prevailing political climate.
Initially setting their sights on a handful of the states, advocates began targeting the various statutory schemes that land youth in adult court. Over time, the number of state advocates taking on this issue has snowballed. (Too numerous to list individually, many of these groups are National Juvenile Justice Network members, working together with the Campaign for Youth Justice.)
The advocates have achieved success by partnering with youth and families who have been affected by the system, convening diverse coalitions, raising awareness in the media and conducting rigorous policy analyses to educate policymakers about the urgent need for reform.
Armed with new adolescent development research and favorable U.S. Supreme Court opinions, advocates have made clear that keeping youth out of the adult system enhances public safety and yields benefits that outweigh the costs.
Equally important, advocates have also pressed the moral case, highlighting the disastrous consequences of these policies for youth and families, and their unfair impact on communities of color. The advocates’ demands for a more just system have encouraged policymakers across the political spectrum to champion change. And once new laws pass, advocates have ensured their successful implementation.
Success has bred success, as advocates have leveraged wins in one state to spark change in others. For example, Connecticut’s raise the age reform, passed in 2007, has been an indisputable triumph, with nearly 20,000 youth avoiding adult court prosecution, while youth arrest and incarceration rates have steadily dropped in the state.
Advocates have been able to point to Connecticut’s example to push other states to follow suit, including Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and now, likely, South Carolina and Louisiana. Of the seven states that still set the age of juvenile jurisdiction below 18, active reform efforts are underway in all but one. These efforts could get an added boost now that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention announced a federal grant opportunity for states that want to raise the age. Remarkably, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, buoyed by the positive impact of his own state’s progress, made an initial attempt this year to raise the age to 21 — which would have been a first for the nation.
While the work is far from over, consensus continues to develop against policies that treat youth like adults, and opponents’ arguments to maintain the status quo simply ring hollow. As advocates have taught us, keeping youth out of the adult criminal justice system is not just the smart thing to do, but also the right thing to do.
Katayoon Majd, Esq., is the program director for juvenile justice at the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, District of Columbia. The Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Program supports groups working to end the criminalization and reliance on incarceration of youth in the United States.