North Carolina Last State to Raise the Age for Adult Court for Juveniles

WASHINGTON — More than five years of lobbying, arm twisting and a fair dose of shaming finally paid off. North Carolina voted Monday to end its status as the only state in the country that still automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults, no matter the crime.

The state legislature added the sweeping juvenile justice reform to a vote on the final state budget, rather than as a standalone bill. In the end it didn’t matter because supporters got virtually everything they were hoping for, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle joined forces to make the changes.

“This is long overdue, but this is good for the state and especially good for our youth who deserve a fair chance in life,” said North Carolina Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat, who led unsuccessful efforts to raise the age in 2013 and 2015. “As someone who has defended these kids in the courtroom, I know how important this bill is for their future, and for our state.”

No one is going to benefit from the new law for quite some time, as the changes won’t go into effect until 2019. That gives the state time to prepare for what some skeptics of the legislation expect to be an influx of new juvenile cases, and for the state to build a new juvenile detention facility.

Hall and other supporters have spent years trying to increase the age, without much success. But this year was different because of two new factors, one external, one internal.

First, New York voted to overhaul its juvenile justice system in April, raising the age of adult responsibility for crimes to 18. That left North Carolina as the only state still automatically charging 16-year-olds in adult court. That created a sense of urgency, according to supporters.

More importantly, Mark Martin, chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court, pushed hard for passage of the bill.

“Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Martin said during a May press conference, according to Politifact. “But North Carolina now stands alone.”

Hall, in an April interview with JJIE after the New York vote, called North Carolina’s status “another dubious list for us to be last on.”

The crux of the argument by Martin, Hall and others focused on the data showing that only 3 percent of the crimes that result in convictions for 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina would have even made it to adult court in other states.

The final vote gave supporters of the measure most of what they wanted, but not all. Under the final version of the bill, all misdemeanors and many felonies will be sent automatically to juvenile court. But Class G felonies are still heading to state court, the only aspect of Hall’s original bill that was not passed.

Under North Carolina law, Class G felonies include arson, burglary, possession of a firearm by a felon and some drug sales crimes, according to summaries of North Carolina statutes.

The passage received nearly universal support, and was noticeable for the bipartisan work of the state legislature. Hall said Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady was instrumental in getting the raise the age bill linked to the final budget, and said both parties worked closely throughout.

The bill was also strongly supported by the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We applaud legislators on both sides of the aisle for uniting behind this commonsense effort to do what’s right for the safety and future of North Carolina’s young people,” ACLU counsel Susanna Birdsong said in a press release Monday afternoon. “North Carolina’s century-old policy of sending 16- and 17-year-olds to adult jails and branding them with lifelong criminal records has been a blight on our state and done nothing to make our communities safer.”

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Louisiana Lawmakers OK Bill to Give Juvenile Lifers Parole Chance After 25 Years

New legislation passed through the Louisiana Legislature this week could give a chance at parole to about 300 juvenile lifers, including Louis Gibson.

Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, allows parole eligibility for juvenile lifers after 25 years.

The legislation also bars juveniles convicted of second-degree murder from being sentenced to life without parole in the future.

Sen. Dan Claitor

In recent years, 92 percent of Louisiana’s juvenile murder defendants were charged with second-degree murder. So the new law would eliminate most future sentences statewide — unless prosecutors begin to charge differently.

Both the parole eligibility and tightened future sentencing were recommended by a task force convened by Gov. John Bel Edwards in an effort to fight crime in smarter, more cost-effective ways. He is expected to sign the bill into law next week, along with a group of bills to lighten sentences and reduce prison populations.

The state’s juvenile lifers face two big hurdles before they would be eligible for a hearing. So it’s not yet clear that the bill will release more than a few dozen of them.

“This is a bittersweet outcome,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, who heads up the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Though he is pleased that second-degree defendants could no longer get a life without parole sentence, he feels legislators missed an opportunity to completely eliminate the sentence for Louisiana juveniles.  

“Thank you, Jesus,” said Gibson’s younger sister, Cha-Chi Gibson. She said she had prayed for a 25-year eligibility because her brother could be eligible for parole as early as next year.

Gibson was on her knees praying during the House debate Thursday, where key members of the House made it clear they preferred that inmates serve 30 years before they’re up for parole.

Rep. Sherman Mack

Even Republican state Rep. Sherman Mack, a member of the committee that negotiated to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, criticized it as he brought it back to the House floor without endorsing it. The first House vote failed, and it could have been declared dead at that point. But then Mack and his colleagues brought it back to the floor for one more try. It ultimately passed by a vote of 62 to 34.

“It’s a difficult bill,” Mack said as he stood glumly at the Senate podium. He reminded his colleagues how last year he’d sponsored and they’d passed a bill that called for blanket 30-year eligibility. He believes last year’s bill was superior.

But the Senate filibustered it. “It was killed by politics,” Mack said.

The Senate passed this year’s bill Wednesday on a vote of 25 to 11. A lot of people made tough compromises to forge the final bill, Claitor told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “I can tell you that nobody’s going to go out and have a parade about this,” he said.

Mack was especially unhappy.  The victims he had consulted were OK with 30 years, but not 25. “None can even fathom 25,” he said.

Some of his colleagues backed his stance while others said they knew other victims, including a member of the House, who accepted parole eligibility after 25 years.

The debate’s most heated moment came when Democratic state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith asked Mack about the adolescent brain science that the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon in a series of decisions about juvenile sentencing.

“Did anyone testify about the science of young children’s brains?” Smith asked, referring to committee testimony. Mack said he couldn’t remember if anyone had testified, but he was aware of the concept that teens with developing adolescent brains are more likely to make reckless decisions.

“Do you not believe that’s true?” Smith asked.

“I can tell you that when I was 17, I knew exactly was I was doing,” Mack replied flatly.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In response, Louisiana eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles. But it allowed them if defendants first received a hearing to consider mitigating factors related to their young age and upbringing.

Since 2012, 75 percent of the Louisiana juveniles who have had those hearings have ended up going to prison for life. So the sentences still ran counter to Supreme Court declarations that these sentences should become “rare” and “uncommon,” testified Professor Katherine Mattes, who directs the Criminal Law Clinic at Tulane University Law School.

“You have to do this,” said Republican state Rep. Tanner Magee, as he stood in front of the House on Thursday, emphasizing that the bill aimed to fix unconstitutional conditions in Louisiana. “If you don’t vote on it now, we’ll do it again next year,” he said.

“I agree that we need to do something,” Mack said. “Maybe some of us just don’t agree on what that something is.”

If the bill didn’t pass, “We will get sued,” said Democratic state Rep. Ted James.

From Louisiana’s prisons, juvenile lifers like Gibson have been waiting for the state to act for more than a year, since the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that states must offer them “meaningful opportunity” for release.

Henry Montgomery, the plaintiff in that case, has been a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1970, when he was sent there for killing a sheriff’s deputy near Baton Rouge. Earlier this year, at a resentencing hearing, the prosecutor argued that Montgomery should be denied parole. Like many judges across the state, the judge overseeing Montgomery’s resentencing hearing had delayed a decision until legislators acted.

No one will be automatically released under the law. Juvenile lifers can earn a parole hearing only if they meet certain behavioral and educational criteria and have served the required time.

Those requirements alone may present a hurdle for many. According to a preliminary estimate by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 93 inmates have served enough time, but fewer than 1 in 5 of them met the other requirements to get a hearing.

Both advocates and legislators said one other provision might be even more daunting. The law allows prosecutors to contend that defendants shouldn’t be granted parole hearings because they’re irredeemable. If a prosecutor opts to make that assertion, those inmates must go through a so-called “worst of the worst hearing.”

Because of this provision, Mack’s bill — which gave blanket parole-eligibility instead of funneling the decision through prosecutors — may have made more inmates eligible for parole, despite requiring five years more of prison time.

The legality of the hearings could be questioned, though, because under the bill, all those who lose “worst of the worst” hearings will never be eligible for parole. If that happens at a fast clip, it could contradict Supreme Court guidance that life sentences for juvenile should be rare.

Clark-Rizzio pledged that his agency would be monitoring the process as the bill becomes law on Aug. 1. From that time, district attorneys have 90 days to declare which defendants they will target for “worst of the worst” hearings, which will cost state public defenders up to $75,000.

Claitor, a former prosecutor, said the state’s district attorneys must be mindful of this. “You can’t declare everyone the worst of the worst,” he said.

The story is a partnership among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily; The Lens, a nonprofit, in-depth newsroom in New Orleans; and The Advocate, a daily newspaper serving Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Vital Juvenile Justice Initiatives at Risk in First 100 Days

WASHINGTON — From banning conversion therapy for gay and trans youth to eliminating solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, President Obama issued a slew of executive orders designed to protect at-risk youth over the past eight years. Now, advocates are worried that new executive orders will undo all that’s been done.

“There were a number of very favorable moves that came out under the Obama administration and under his leadership. Some of those can surely be undone by a President Trump,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “Initiatives that Obama implemented — including correctional education, a number of issues related to students with disabilities, executive order regarding solitary confinement — these are all fragile developments that we have all been led to believe can be undone by Trump on his own.”

It’s a concern echoed by Sage Learn, director of policy and advocacy at Boys and Girls Club of America. Learn points to mentoring initiatives, programs that address policing issues in youth populations, and resources that prevent juvenile delinquency and incarceration.

“There are a lot of different youth programs and we don’t want to see rollbacks on resources that are critical to at-risk youth,” Learn said. “At the top of our list is pieces of legislation that can be weakened, either through inattention, poor implementation or a lack of federal funding commitment, and then concerns about the type of executive order, regulatory types of things that the Obama administration did that can be undone even without congressional involvement.”

“These orders are undone not in the name of harming kids but in the name of other things,” Levick said. “… if they were to undo the executive order on solitary, it could be it’s not that ‘We hate kids,’ it’s that we don’t want to interfere with the ability of prison administrations to take the steps they need to promote safety within the facility.”

Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, is also worried about the rollback of Obama’s executive orders protecting youth and families, but isn’t convinced it will happen immediately. “I don’t think youth justice is going to be top on the list, directly,” she said. “I think what we are more worried about is how repealing the Affordable Care Act is going to impact kids and families.

“You’ve got kids in the juvenile justice system with a diagnosable mental health or learning disability,” Mistrett said. “So the question is, will we be able to continue to fund and support children in the context of their community? Or is that going to go away because of the way they’re going to restructuring the funding?”

Learn and her organization are calling for a Youth Week to bring together the various agencies working on child and family programs directly, as well as those with programs that impact youth more peripherally. And both Learn and Levick warn that groups should keep a close eye on funding, and which programs are undermined by a lack of resources.

“Even where there is good legislation in place, these issues could arise,” Levick said. “Obviously, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act is in this constant state of trying to be reauthorized, but it’s not just an issue of trying to be reauthorized, it’s an issue of how much money gets appropriated to support and implement it.”

House, Senate Take Different Paths on Proposed Juvenile Justice Funding


WASHINGTON — Reformers are dismayed by a proposed House spending bill that would eliminate funding for several major juvenile justice programs next year.

The House bill is in sharp contrast to corresponding Senate legislation, which would increase juvenile justice spending slightly compared with current levels.

The Act4JJ Coalition, an umbrella organization that represents more than 150 children’s advocacy, legal, medical and educational organizations, said the House bill is disheartening and would limit how well states can serve youth.

“Progress can’t be made if promises aren’t kept. We must have a national commitment to the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system; it is both cost effective and the morally right thing to do,” said Marie Williams, co-chair of Act4JJ and executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill by voice vote this week. For the second year in a row, the bill would eliminate funding for:

  • Title II state formula grants, which are used to support delinquency prevention and intervention programs, and
  • the Title V Local Delinquency Prevention Program, a matching grant program that supports community-based delinquency prevention efforts using evidence-informed approaches.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its legislation in April. The bill would increase funding for the Title II grants from $58 million to $63 million and for the Title V grants from $17.5 million to $27.5 million.

[Related: South Carolina Close to Raising Age for Juvenile Offenders to 17]

The programs are “the backbone of programs assisting State and local agencies to prevent juvenile delinquency and ensure that youth who are in contact with the juvenile justice system are treated fairly,” the Senate committee said in a report.

Neither the House nor Senate bill would fund the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program, which was first stripped of funding several years ago. The Obama administration had recommended restoring $30 million in funding for the program in its budget request.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, who had organized a group of 70 lawmakers who urged appropriators to increase funding for juvenile justice, said the House bill takes the wrong approach.

“Research has showed us that these programs will save taxpayer dollars, help kids in trouble become productive members of society, and make our streets and communities safer,” he said in a news release.

Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice and co-chair of Act 4JJ Coalition, said the funding levels highlight the importance of reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, which includes the programs that were zeroed out. Without strong support for the law, it’s easier for Congress not to support it with funding, she said.

“It underscores the need to reauthorize the bill because that continues to be the reason they say they can’t fund it,” she said.

The JJDPA sets federal standards for child protection in the justice system and provides funding for programs in state and local jurisdictions. A Senate reauthorization bill has been stalled since Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, objected to one of its provisions in February.

Both the House and Senate bills do include funding for other juvenile justice-related provisions, including mentoring, training for judicial personnel and missing and exploited children programs. The House bill would spend $184 million, compared with $272 million in the Senate.

In 2016, funding levels for juvenile justice were at $270 million, compared with $547 million in 2002, when JJDPA was last reauthorized.

The House bill next goes to the floor. It remains to be seen if the House and Senate will reach a final spending plan under regular order, which would call for a compromise between the two bills, or if a larger deal will be reached later in the year.

More related articles:

States Could Not Terminate Medicaid for Juveniles in Custody Under Bill

Kansas Overhauls Juvenile Justice System, Emphasizes Community-Based Reinvestment

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

South Carolina Close to Raising Age for Juvenile Offenders to 17

South Carolina State House
South Carolina State House

South Carolina is poised to join the majority of states that keep teenagers in the juvenile justice system until their 18th birthday.

Senate lawmakers approved “raise the age” legislation (SB 916) late Tuesday that would increase the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 17 for most young offenders. All but nine states already consider teenagers juveniles until they turn 18.

The legislation sailed through the Senate on a vote of 37-0; the House had approved it 102-0 earlier this month.

Advocates applauded passage of the legislation, which now goes to the desk of Gov. Nikki R. Haley, a Republican.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the bill’s relatively smooth passage is a sign that lawmakers are persuaded that young people do best in a system designed for rehabilitation.

“It just shows there’s been a real shift in the debate about how we should treat children,” she said.

The South Carolina legislation would take effect in 2019 and includes an exception for youth charged with certain violent crimes.

[Related: States Consider Legislation to Raise the Age for Juvenile Court Into Young Adulthood]

Supporters of raising the age across the country have made their case using a growing body of research into adolescent brain development that says teenagers are different than mature adults. Raising the age brings older teenagers into a system they say is better able to focus on rehabilitation.

Nationally, most states set 17 as the upper boundary for juvenile jurisdiction. Of the nine that do not, seven states set an upper boundary of 16, while two, North Carolina and New York, set it at 15. In nearly every state, there’s an active campaign to raise the age

Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the national advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice, said lawmakers have embraced the idea that they’re more likely to improve outcomes for teenagers in juvenile than adult court. The decrease in juvenile arrests and detentions means states have greater capacity to accommodate older teenagers, she said.

The momentum also reflects the smooth transitions that other states have experienced when they made more teenagers eligible for juvenile court.

“Everyone says it was the right thing to do,” Mistrett said. “We have no buyer’s remorse.”

In Louisiana, lawmakers also hope to pass legislation this year that would raise the age. Two key House committees have approved the bill, setting up a floor vote as early as this week. The Senate has approved the bill 33-4, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is a strong supporter of it.

“With an eye toward public safety, research shows consistently that the juvenile justice system does a better job at preventing recidivism. That means fewer future crime victims, and less money spent on incarceration down the road,” Edwards said in a statement on the bill earlier this year.

Advocates also are optimistic for action in Michigan, where the House has voted for a bill that would raise the age to a young offender’s 18th birthday.

Meanwhile, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, continues to press hard for legislation that would raise the age beyond 18, until a young adult’s 21st birthday — a change that would be the most far-reaching raise the age provision in the country.

Both the Connecticut House and Senate delayed votes on the bill during a special session to resolve the state’s budget shortfall, leaving its prospects for passage uncertain. If lawmakers vote on the bill, a close vote is expected, according to news reports.

This story has been updated.

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States Could Not Terminate Medicaid for Juveniles in Custody Under Bill


WASHINGTON — States would be prohibited from terminating Medicaid coverage for incarcerated juveniles under legislation introduced today in the House and Senate.

States could suspend coverage while juveniles were in custody rather than cutting off their coverage, a change the bill’s sponsors said would ensure a smooth transition for youth as they re-enter the community.

States would be required to automatically restore Medicaid enrollment when a juvenile was released.

Many juveniles rely on Medicaid coverage for physical and behavioral health care. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that as many as 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system suffer from a mental disorder.

Federal law prohibits states from drawing down Medicaid funding for people who are incarcerated. Some states, though not all, already suspend rather than terminate coverage for juveniles.

“We as legislators have an opportunity to flip the switch and make sure health coverage does not get taken away from children who need it most. The positive impacts of automatically reinstating coverage for children post detention far outweigh the negatives,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, a sponsor of the bill, in a news release.

Cárdenas sponsored the “At-Risk Youth Medicaid Protection Act” along with Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia. Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut introduced a version in the Senate. The bill was first introduced in 2014.

“If kids are incarcerated, they need their medication when they come out. But many states block them from getting the medication and treatment they need. The easiest way to guarantee that a kid will be locked up again is to deny him the medication needed to live a normal, productive life,” Murphy said in a news release.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services previously has encouraged states to suspend rather than terminate Medicaid coverage for juveniles. The states have reported some barriers to doing so, such as problems with their information management system, according to a 2014 report from the National Academy for State Health Policy.

The bill’s supporters include the National Disability Rights Network, the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Jenny Collier, project director for the Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative, said the bill would ensure incarcerated young people have access to medical and behavioral health services as soon as they leave a facility.

“Access to such care and treatment will help to support more successful reentry, which is good for kids, communities, and our nation,” Collier said in an e-mail.

The Health and Human Services Department also released guidance today that clarifies that individuals who are on probation, parole or in home confinement are not considered inmates of a public institution and federal Medicaid dollars can be used for their care. The guidance also extends Medicaid eligibility to people living in community halfway houses.

Kansas Overhauls Juvenile Justice System, Emphasizes Community-Based Reinvestment

Kansas State Capitol Building
Kansas State Capitol Building

Kansas has become the latest state to overhaul its juvenile justice system, with a set of reforms projected to reduce the number of juveniles in custody by more than half and save tens of millions of dollars.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, signed the sweeping legislation, SB 367, after it cleared the Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year with only a handful of dissenting votes during a tough budget season.

hub_arrow_2-01“This bill is about being smart on crime. It aligns our juvenile justice system with what research shows works best to reduce victimization, keep families strong, and guide youth toward a better path,” he said in a news release.

Like recent reforms in other states, the law aims to reduce the juvenile justice system’s reliance on youth incarceration and emphasize the use of community-based treatment programs for young offenders.

Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at Pew Charitable Trusts, said the reforms address the system from top to bottom.

“It is easily one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive juvenile justice reforms in recent memory,” he said. Pew assists states with analyses and policy recommendations.

The reforms are projected to cut out-of-home placements by 60 percent by fiscal year 2022 and save $72 million during a five-year period beginning in fiscal year 2018. Each year, the state will direct any savings from a reduced reliance on youth incarceration to a Juvenile Justice Improvement Fund that will pay for community-based programming.

“It provides a continuous, positive feedback loop when savings are reinvested in the programs that are improving the success rate, which in turn saves more money,” Gelb said.

The law also:

  • establishes a multiagency Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee;
  • phases out the use of group home placements except in limited circumstances; and
  • establishes case length limits that determine how long a juvenile can remain under the court’s jurisdiction.

Some prosecutors in Kansas are skeptical of the new law.

The Kansas County and District Attorneys Association said in a news release that the law will “undermine the discretion of the courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public.”

The group also is concerned about whether funding will be adequate to support the reforms and said prosecutors should have had more say in shaping it.

“A bill this expansive, and potentially impactful deserved more input from those ultimately responsible for its successful implementation. That said, the KCDAA will remain vigilant and actively engaged in the process necessary to ensure this bill achieves the stated goals,” the group said.

Kansas is the sixth state to participate in a juvenile justice reform project run by Pew, after Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii, South Dakota and West Virginia. A bipartisan group of judges, district attorneys, law enforcement officers and public defenders began studying the juvenile justice system in June 2015 before making recommendations to the legislature in December.

The group found that while the juvenile arrest rate in Kansas had dropped more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, the number of youth under community supervisions or in residential placements hadn’t fallen as fast. In addition, a growing number of juveniles in out-of-home placements were lower-level offenders, a trend the group attributed to a lack of community-based options.

State Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican who participated in the working group, said he was skeptical about the idea of reforms at first.

“My initial reaction was this is just another way to coddle kids,” he said.

But the data won him over, turning him into a champion for the bill in the Senate. He said it became clear that early intervention and community-based treatment held the most promise to get young people on the right track, rather than locking them up — a case he also made to his colleagues.

“Rather than keeping kids from reoffending we were teaching them to reoffend,” he said.
Benet Magnuson, executive director of the nonprofit justice center Kansas Appleseed, a member of Kansans United for Youth Justice, said he’s thrilled with the legislation.

The group will be encouraging communities to embrace reforms, especially the promise of reinvestment.

“The law’s in place, the funding’s coming into place, but now it’s up to the communities in Kansas to really implement the reforms,” he said.

This story has been updated.

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.

Lawmakers Hope to Bring JJDPA to Senate Floor Again

Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. Charles E. Grassley

WASHINGTON — Key legislation that would strengthen protections for youth in the juvenile justice system still has a chance in the Senate.

A bipartisan bill (S 1169) to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act stalled on the Senate floor last week when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, objected to a provision that would limit judges’ ability to send juveniles to lockup for status offenses.

The bill was considered under a fast-track procedure that clears the way for passage unless a lawmaker objects.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, now is seeking a way to address Cotton’s concerns and move the bill to the floor once more.

“Chairman Grassley is going to continue to work with Senator Cotton to see if the issue can be resolved in hopes of passing something soon,” said Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Grassley, in an email.

[Related: House Committee Hears Strong Calls for JJDPA Reauthorization]

The reauthorization is a top priority for juvenile justice advocates, who are urging swift action on the bill. In a year with a tight legislative calendar, they want to see the Senate pass the bill sooner rather than later so that action can move to the House, where lawmakers have yet to consider a similar measure.

JJDPA sets federal standards and provides funding for juvenile justice programs in state and local jurisdictions. The update reflects a growing body of best practices for how youth in the juvenile justice system should be treated, say the law’s supporters.


The JJDPA prohibits the detention of juveniles for status offenses, behaviors such as truancy or running away from home, except in one case — if a juvenile violates a valid court order issued by a judge. The reauthorization would phase out the exception, meaning states would have to comply or risk losing federal grants.

Cotton objected to a prohibition on the practice.

“I am concerned that the bill eliminates completely the ability for judges to order secure confinement for a short time in instances where a status offender flagrantly violates the judge’s prior order for him to, say, enter into rehabilitation, counseling, or take part in other treatment services. In such narrow circumstances, it may be prudent,” he said on the Senate floor.

Most of the instances when juveniles are detained for status offenses occur in just a few states. In fiscal year 2014, when 7,466 juveniles were detained under the exception, 2,705 were held in Washington state, 1,048 in Kentucky and 747 in Arkansas, according to federal data. Many states did not use the exception at all.

Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition For Juvenile Justice, said detaining status offenders is a misguided practice that can worsen a juvenile’s situation rather than improving it.

Juveniles may face dangerous situations in detention, including the risk of physical and sexual violence, she said. Detention also doesn’t get at the root cause of status offenses, such as if a child is not attending school because of bullying or an undiagnosed special education need, she said.

“It’s a costly practice and it doesn’t have the benefits that people think it does for the kids behind bars,” she said.

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Giving Inmates with Life Sentences 2nd Chance Is Right Thing to Do

George Toca
George Toca

I went to prison as a child and was expected to die there. After more than 30 years and a number of legal developments, I walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as a free man on Jan. 29, 2015.

That is why I was overjoyed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that everyone sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a child is eligible for review. I was thrilled for the hundreds of men I know at Angola who were told as children that they would leave prison only in a pine box.

Louisiana is one of the top five states in the country that send children to prison for life without parole. No other country in the world does that.

Those men will now get a chance to prove they have changed and deserve a chance at release. I am especially happy for my friend Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the Supreme Court case. He is nearly 70 years old and has been at Angola for 52 years.

I was sentenced to life parole when I was 17, after I was accused of killing my friend during a robbery. Even though I maintain my innocence, I faced the same reality of every other youth sentenced to life without parole: I was never to live in free society as an adult.

Then, in late 2014, after years of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear my petition arguing that their decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for children, should apply to me and everyone else sentenced before the ruling in June 2012. When the court agreed to review my case, I and the hundreds of men serving the sentence at Angola were hopeful that we finally had a chance. It was a blessing that God had given and it impacted not only me.

But our celebrations ended quickly. Prosecutors in Orleans Parish, where I was sentenced, offered me a deal that would allow me to plead guilty to a lesser charge and get out of prison immediately. On one hand, I was excited to leave prison. At the same time, I knew I was not guilty.

I also felt like I was letting the other guys down. I had spent years with those guys. A lot of us had become friends and we had all been looking for a case to come up and help those of us at Angola. They told me they were disappointed in me.

[Related: Juveniles, Their Advocates Unhappy with Lack of Re-entry Resources from LA Probation]

But even though my case was being considered, my lawyers had made clear to me that there were no guarantees. The court might not rule in my favor, or if they did, I still might not get parole. I was really tired of being in prison. My faith in the justice system had been stolen. The uncertainty of that led me to take the plea.

It really hurt me when I chose to do it and end the chance others had to get out. One of the people I left behind was my friend Henry Montgomery. We’re really close and we worked really near each other in the prison. I used to give him some of my vegetable seeds to plan in his garden.

I was relieved when the court took his case a few months later. The court ruled in his favor on Jan. 25, just four days before the one-year anniversary of my release. My hope now is that the guys get individualized sentencing reviews and a second chance.

I want them to have the same opportunity I have to build a life. The first thing I did when I got out is eat a meal at McDonalds and give my mother a big hug. Part of my job as an inmate minister, a role I took on after I finished seminary, was to give people the news when a loved one died. It was always my prayer that no one would have to deliver that message to me.

I got a chance to spend the last year of my mother’s life with her before she died earlier this year. We had some good times and laughs. I would like for it to have been longer and wanted to do a lot more with her, like take a cruise together, but I am grateful for what we had.

I also am working for a landscape company, which is the same work I did in prison. I am buying my first car. I am saving to purchase equipment to start my own company. I also want to meet a nice woman, get married and start a family.

I went to prison as a child. I turned 49 on Valentine’s Day. I have watched during the years as children have come into Angola. They have grown up and matured and many have become outstanding people. I know that many of them would do well if they were released.

The United States is built on second chances — and sometimes second and third chances. I am glad the guys at Angola — and the thousands of others throughout the country — will have an opportunity to demonstrate they deserve one.

George Toca was sentenced to life without parole in Louisiana at 17 for second-degree murder and spent more than 30 years in prison. After his appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court, he was released from prison in 2015. He now lives in the New Orleans area.

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