The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission(IJJC) recently released a report urging state policymakers to reclassify 17-year-olds as juveniles within the state’s legal system. While a 2010 General Assembly act shifted the state’s 17-year-old misdemeanants to juvenile court jurisdictions, young people of the same age who commit felonies are automatically transferred to Illinois’ adult system. “To promote a juvenile justice system focused on public safety, youth rehabilitation, fairness and fiscal responsibility,” the report reads, “Illinois should immediately adopt legislation expanding the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies.”
The IJJC suggested the state alter its policies and raise the adult court jurisdictional age to 18 for both misdemeanor and felony offenses. “It’s a really well-researched, well-documented and well-substantiated report,” said Commission member and Children and Family Justice Center Director Julie Biehl. “It would be a positive effect to bring those young people who are charged with felonies back to juvenile court jurisdiction.”
Not only must criminal courts in Illinois hear all felony cases involving 17-year-olds, according to the report, the state’s criminal courts remain “categorically unable” to take age into account in felony cases.
Connecticut’s juvenile justice system has seen tremendous reform in the past 10 years. As a new report by the Justice Policy Institute points out, we’ve diverted kids from the juvenile system, provided better services for those inside it and kept kids out of the adult system. These reforms have been accompanied by a declining youth crime rate and a decreasing burden on taxpayers. So many people deserve credit for these advances, including enlightened public officials, inspired funders and tenacious advocates. But what made them so successful?
Massachusetts looks likely to raise the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18 next year, and may make more changes as nearly simultaneous new rules from the federal government, a U.S. Supreme Court decision and a report from the state’s Child Advocate nudge Boston lawmakers toward more reforms.
“I think there’s a lot of support” to raise the age, said state Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, as well as House sponsor of an age-raising bill that passed House and Senate committees this year. Right now, Massachusetts reserves juvenile proceedings for those under 17. Khan’s House Bill 450 simply replaced the word “seventeen” with “eighteen.”
“I’ll be working on that pretty steadily and heavily. It just doesn’t make any sense not to do that,” said Khan. That work comes as the U.S. Supreme Court and judges in state courts are more often echoing advocates for more flexibility in youth sentencing, on an argument that youths are still developing mentally and more capable of reformation than adults.
New York state 16- and 17-year-olds go to adult court, a practice nearly unique to the state. But that may change, as the New York legislature is expected to take another look at proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility. “New York State is one of two states that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults no matter what crime they commit … That’s what we’re trying to change,” said Angelo Pinto, the Raise the Age Campaign manager at the Correctional Association of New York, a progressive nonprofit. CA points to studies that say putting minors through some sort of youth-specific adjudication reduces the chances they will re-appear in court. By contrast, putting them in the adult system makes them more violent. But getting a new law is “not a slam dunk by any means,” said state Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of two age-of-responsibility bills this year.
When I first began practicing in juvenile delinquency court in North Carolina eight years ago, I was shocked to discover that the maximum age of jurisdiction is 15. This means if you are 16 or 17 and charged with a criminal offense, you are automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. There are no exceptions, no possibility of waiving the rule, and no second chances. So, when a 10th grader pushes another student in the hallway of a school that has a zero-tolerance policy, the 16-year-old will face misdemeanor assault charges in criminal district court. Likewise, a 17-year-old prosecuted for stealing a bike from a neighbor’s garage would face charges of breaking and entering as well as larceny.
Connecticut just made a major policy change that will protect kids and reduce crime. You probably didn’t notice. That’s understandable. The Raise the Age campaign that pushed for this legislation didn’t run television commercials or send out mailers. We couldn’t afford them.
As New York families gather over Thanksgiving turkeys, and count their blessings and good fortune, they should include in their circle of gratitude three well-known New York judges. These judges have taken a firm position, and offered their help, to raise the age of criminal responsibility, thus keeping thousands of 16 and 17 year old misdemeanants in juvenile court with appropriate services for youth. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, and former criminal court judge Michael Corriero deserve that thanks. After all, last month we survived another Halloween night – you know, when adults act like kids and kids dress like adults. Just the thought of that should remind everyone how artificial and arbitrary the distinction between adult and child can be.
An amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system. Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice. “This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, — a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue — told USA Today.