Connecticut’s governor has launched a new attempt at a groundbreaking juvenile justice reform effort this year, pushing to raise the age at which most young offenders go before an adult court to 21.
Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed the same plan in 2016, only to see it stall in the state legislature. But if he succeeds this year, Connecticut would be the first to raise the age beyond 18 for all but the most serious offenses, such as murder, assault with a firearm and rape.
“There’s no doubt this is a cutting-edge proposal,” said Lael Chester, the co-author of a report by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government that’s recommending a step-by-step program for making that change.
A state legislative committee that oversees juvenile justice urged Connecticut officials Thursday to move deliberately if the plan gets adopted, phasing in the changes over a four and a half-year period — but it didn’t sign off on any particular bill.
In recent years, several states have raised the age at which teenagers are routinely prosecuted as adults to 18. Connecticut was one of them, raising its age from 16 to 18. But no state has gone beyond 18, the age at which Americans are generally considered legal adults with the right to vote, join the armed forces, carry a credit card.
In their report, Chester and co-author Vincent Schiraldi characterize people between 18 and 21 as “emerging adults.” Recent advances in the understanding of adolescent brain development and psychology suggest young adults should get the juvenile justice system’s opportunities for rehabilitation and second chances.
Currently, those emerging adults have the highest recidivism rates of any group in the criminal justice system, Chester said. The report found that young adults prosecuted in adult courts were between 34 and 77 percent more likely to be arrested again, and more likely to be arrested for a more violent crime than teens who stayed in the juvenile system.
“We have historically just lumped together 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds in the adult system without really thinking about it,” she said. “And yet we now know from research that that emerging adult population is a distinct developmental stage. They’re somewhere between childhood and fully mature, independent adulthood.
“We know from developmental psychology and neurobiology that the brain is still developing,” she said. “That’s what moved a lot of states and moved the U.S. Supreme Court to find that they have a greater protection from the Constitution.”
An adviser to the legislative committee, William Carbone, director of the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven, said, “It will involve shifting of resources, it will involve technical law changes and it will involve some budgetary implications. So if the governor and the legislature set this as our goal, it gives us a full year to put operational plans together to make this happen successfully.”
Last year’s proposal faltered in the state’s General Assembly, even as other criminal justice reform measures advanced. This year, Malloy’s Democratic allies control the House of Representatives, while the Senate is split evenly with Republicans at 18-18.
Malloy's office did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday. Senate Republican leader Len Fasano's office said he had no comment on the new proposal yet.
At least three other states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Illinois — are considering similar proposals, but none have acted yet, Chester said.
Raising the age for adult prosecutions from 18 to 21 will keep about 10,000 Connecticut offenders a year in the juvenile system, Chester and Schiraldi estimated. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s arrests.
And since most people “age out” of crime, keeping offenders in a system that’s designed to provide close supervision, educational programs and counseling is likely to provide better outcomes than sentencing them to hard time in the adult system, Chester said.
“One the biggest differences between the adult system and the juvenile system is a criminal record,” she said. “Once you have an adult record, you have that for life, and that is going to affect your job, your ability to get a mortgage, to get student loans and your ability to attend schools. I think the idea with the governor’s proposal is we can hold them accountable, we can provide them with the appropriate services, and when they mature out of this — which we all want them to do, and which most of them will do — we want them to be able to lead a productive, healthy life.”
There’s no budget estimate included in the Harvard report. But Chester said much of what the state is discussing could be accomplished by shifting existing resources from the adult to the juvenile system. Though juvenile systems usually cost more per head than adult prisons, the short-term costs can be offset by diverting more offenders to probation or other alternative programs, where she said about a third of Connecticut juvenile cases are resolved.
“That is enormous cost savings. You’re getting the results you want without having to kick in all the legal process,” Chester said. “There is no equivalent on the adult side.”