States Consider Legislation to Raise the Age for Juvenile Court Into Young Adulthood



During the last decade, advocates and policymakers in Connecticut and Illinois won contentious battles to keep young offenders in juvenile court until they turned 18 years old.

Now, supporters of those efforts want to go even further, saying a wave of research into adolescent brain development makes the case for treating young adults differently from mature adults.

Lawmakers in both states are considering legislation that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction through age 20. The move would bring young adults into a system some say is better equipped to rehabilitate them — and comes with fewer collateral consequences, such as trouble finding employment, that often accompany a criminal record.

Advocates in both states say it’s no accident the bills are under consideration in states that recently raised the age without the problems that those opposed to the policy predicted, such as cost overruns or spikes in the juvenile detention population.

Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke

“People become more accustomed to the conversations. It’s not as threatening and not as challenging to the status quo,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Illinois.

Nationally, most states set 17 as the upper boundary for juvenile jurisdiction, meaning an offense most likely will land a teenager in juvenile court until their 18th birthday. Seven states set an upper boundary of 16, while two, North Carolina and New York, set it at 15.

In nearly every state with a boundary younger than 17, there’s an active campaign to raise the age.

Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said she’s long wondered which state would be last to raise the age to 18. The legislation in Connecticut and Illinois could open the door to an entirely new conversation though, about which states are re-examining their policies for young adults.

“Even if they don’t succeed, having a lot of information out there encourages other states to think about it,” she said.

A conversation about raising the age for young adults also has started in Vermont.

Lawmakers there are expected to consider a proposal from state Sen. Dick Sears Jr., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that would require a committee to study whether to raise the age up to 21 for young adults charged with all but the most serious crimes. The proposal also would put in place new housing restrictions to separate young adults from other inmates in prison and limit when 16-year-olds can be charged in criminal court.

Sears, who spent decades working with young people in group homes, said he long had noticed the similarities between high school-aged teenagers and their slightly older peers — and the more recent brain science findings confirming those similarities has encouraged his interest in changing the system for young adults.

“That’s where we have the best chance at lowering recidivism,” he said.

Developmental differences

Vincent Schiraldi
Vincent Schiraldi

Research on the adolescent brain and development psychology has shown how juveniles differ from adults, with less control of their emotions and more willingness to take risks, said Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow at the program in criminal justice policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

That’s helped make the case for why adolescents should be treated differently than adults. But, the research also has shown young adults continue to develop into their mid-20s, meaning juveniles aren’t just different from adults but young adults also are different from more mature adults.

Those findings help to explain why policymakers are interested in young adults. If there’s no bright line that says when a person crosses from one stage of life to the other, then it’s worth looking at whether the justice system needs to accommodate those differences, Schiraldi said.

He added that young people are also crossing key developmental bridges, such as finding secure employment or marrying later than they once did, leading to a longer stretch of time when they can get into trouble.

“The avenues for them to lead stable lives have been put off, and we haven’t reacted to it in a lot of ways,” he said.

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s good to see policymakers recognize that there is no magic birthday that separates an adolescent from an adult. Raising the age is good, but it would be even better for policymakers to think beyond two categories, to the developmental stage and needs of each teenager and young adult who enters the system, he said.

“It’s all individualized, and we’re just not good at having that system,” he said.

Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he’s skeptical of raising the age to 20. He said it’s unclear how the policy would work and expects resistance to doing so both because of costs and because people see age 18 as a meaningful line.

“It’s an arbitrary designation, to say the least, but it’s the one we’ve gone with for a lot of things,” Cohen said.

Bill specifics

The Connecticut bill (SB 18) would gradually raise the age to automatically be tried as an adult to 21 over three years. The General Assembly’s joint Judiciary Committee passed the bill in late March by a vote of 22 to 17.

State Sen. John A. Kissel, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the decision to raise the age to 18 made sense, but the new bill goes too far.

“18- to 20-year-olds can vote, drive, and go to war. Putting them into the juvenile justice system for certain crimes seems like an overreach,” he said in a news release.

The bill’s path through the legislature is not entirely clear, especially as the state navigates a budget shortfall. But the bill has a champion in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, who gave a major speech in the fall urging lawmakers to raise the age.

“Our prisons should not serve as crime schools for our most impressionable. What we are proposing are long-term, thoughtful solutions that will drive crime down even lower,” Malloy said in a news release after the committee vote.

In Illinois, lawmakers have released several bills related to raise the age, including HB 6308, which would raise the age to 21 for misdemeanors, and HB 6191, which would do so for felonies. Related hearings could begin this week.

The state is in the midst of a major budget crisis, so the outlook for the bills is unclear.

Clarke said she hopes the conversation about how to treat young adults highlights that for some young people, second chances are a given. The experience for a 20-year-old at college who commits an offense are likely to be very different from that for a 20-year-old who is out of school and unemployed.

“It’s a terribly difficult time of life for all young people and we should really be focusing on helping them navigate them forward toward independent living,” she said.

Abby Anderson, executive director at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said that if the bill succeeds, planning for its implementation will be critical.

“It’s certainly possible that the rules of juvenile court, or what it means to be in juvenile court, might be different for a 20-year-old than a 13-year-old,” she said. The system will have to prepare to address the lives of young adults, whose educational, economic and health needs likely will be different than younger teenagers, she said.

When Connecticut raised the age previously it was critical that the juvenile justice system was working as well as possible before older teenagers were added. The same would be true this time around, she said.

A juvenile justice reform bill aimed at increasing diversion and reducing detention and recidivism is making its way through the Connecticut legislature. Its provisions go hand-in-hand with raising the age, Anderson said.

“You have to make sure the juvenile justice system is as safe, effective and small as it can be before you can introduce this new cadre,” she said.

Published by

Sarah Barr

Washington, D.C., correspondent