Time to raise the ju­ve­nile age limit

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY VIN­CENT SCHI­RALDI AND BRUCE WESTERN Vin­cent Schi­raldi and Bruce Western are, re­spec­tively, se­nior re­search fel­low and chair of the Pro­gram in Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Pol­icy and Man­age­ment at the Har­vard Kennedy School.

Just over 100 years ago, there was no sep­a­rate court for ju­ve­niles any­where in the world. Ado­les­cents were viewed as smaller ver­sions of adults, were pros­e­cuted un­der the same laws and of­ten sent to the same pris­ons. But in 1899, a pi­o­neer­ing group ofwomen— Jane Addams, Lucy Flower and Ju­lia Lathrop — per­suaded the state of Illi­nois to cre­ate a sep­a­rate court to han­dle ju­ve­niles’ cases in­di­vid­u­ally, be more re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive and less puni­tive and en­sure that youth­ful mis­takes wouldn’t haunt young­sters through­out their lives. The fam­ily court was a smash­ing suc­cess, spread­ing to 46 states and 16 coun­tries by 1925 and de­cid­edly re­duc­ing re­cidi­vism com­pared with try­ing chil­dren as adults.

But while fam­ily court’s found­ing moth­ers got a lot right, the set­ting of 18 as the court’s max­i­mum age was an ar­bi­trary choice based on the mores of the time rather than hard ev­i­dence. It’s time we ex­panded the pro­tec­tions and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive ben­e­fits of the fam­ily court to young adults.

Re­search in neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy and de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy has shown that the brain doesn’t fin­ish de­vel­op­ing un­til the mid-20s, far later than was pre­vi­ously thought. Young adults are more sim­i­lar to ado­les­cents than fully ma­ture adults in im­por­tant ways. They are more sus­cep­ti­ble to peer pres­sure, less fu­ture-ori­ented and more volatile in emo­tion­ally charged set­tings.

Fur­ther­more, ado­les­cence it­self has be­come elon­gated com­pared with that of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. To­day’s young peo­ple fin­ish col­lege, find jobs, get mar­ried and leave home much later than their par­ents did. Just 9 per­cent of young adults were mar­ried in 2010, com­pared with 45 per­cent in 1960.

Non-crim­i­nal law and prac­tice fre­quently rec­og­nize these de­vel­op­men­tal dif­fer­ences. States pro­hibit young adults from smok­ing cig­a­rettes, con­sum­ing al­co­hol, pos­sess­ing firearms, gam­bling and adopt­ing chil­dren. You can’t serve in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives un­til age 25, it costs more to rent a car as a young adult and you can stay on your par­ents’ health in­sur­ance un­til 26.

How­ever, de­spite the de­vel­op­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween young and fully ma­ture adults, crim­i­nal law draws a stark, sci­en­tif­i­cally in­de­fen­si­ble line at 18. This has dis­as­trous public safety out­comes. For ex­am­ple, 78 per­cent of 18- to 24-year-olds re­leased from prison are re­ar­rested and about half re­turn to prison within three years, the high­est re­cidi­vism rate of any age co­hort.

For­tu­nately, there has been grow­ing in­no­va­tion over­seas along with some note­wor­thy U.S. ex­per­i­ments de­signed to ad­dress the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties this tran­si­tion-aged pop­u­la­tion presents. The age of fam­ily court ju­ris­dic­tion in Ger­many and the Nether­lands is 21 and 23, re­spec­tively. Many Euro­pean coun­tries have sep­a­rate cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties for young adults. In Fin­land, young peo­ple can earn ac­cel­er­ated re­lease from prison by par­tic­i­pat­ing in ed­u­ca­tional and pro­fes­sional train­ing pro­grams.

Sev­eral states— Florida, Michigan and New York — have laws that per­mit young adults’ con­vic­tions to re­main con­fi­den­tial. San Fran­cisco’s pro­ba­tion of­fice has a spe­cial caseload cat­e­gory for “tran­si­tional-aged youth,” and this sum­mer the city es­tab­lished a spe­cial­ized youth court.

New York City’s jus­tice of­fi­cials are ex­per­i­ment­ing with spe­cial­ized han­dling of young adults at ev­ery stage of the process. The po­lice and dis­trict at­tor­neys in Brook­lyn and Man­hat­tan have just launched “Pro­ject Re­set” to di­vert youths upon ar­rest. The state courts have “ado­les­cent di­ver­sion parts” in ev­ery New York bor­ough. New York City’s pro­ba­tion depart­ment is plan­ning to launch spe­cial­ized young-adult caseloads, and the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion is plan­ning ded­i­cated young-adult fa­cil­i­ties with spe­cial­ized reen­try ser­vices. A range of non­prof­its tar­get pro­gram­ming specif­i­cally at young adults.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta E. Lynch re­cently con­vened an ex­pert panel to ex­plore de­vel­op­men­tally ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses to young adults caught up in the jus­tice sys­tem. “Re­search in­di­cates that . . . we may have a sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity, even af­ter the teenage years, to ex­ert a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence and re­duce fu­ture crim­i­nal­ity through ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­ven­tions,” she said. This “of­fers a chance to con­sider new and in­no­va­tive ways to aug­ment our crim­i­nal jus­tice ap­proach.”

Such think­ing will un­doubt­edly face po­lit­i­cal head winds in some places, but im­proved out­comes can be used to build sup­port with the public. Fre­quently, U.S. ju­ve­nile jus­tice prac­tice moves ado­les­cents in the op­po­site di­rec­tion— from fam­ily court into adult court and, too of­ten, adult pris­ons. An es­ti­mated 247,000 peo­ple un­der 18 were tried as adults in 2007, and more than 5,000 ado­les­cents are in­car­cer­ated in jails and pris­ons. There, they are at greater risk of sex­ual as­sault and ex­pe­ri­ence higher re­ar­rest rates vs. youth re­tained in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. Any re­forms for young adults need to also re­duce this de­struc­tive prac­tice of trans­fer­ring young peo­ple into the maw of the adult sys­tem.

Given ad­vances in re­search and suc­cess­ful in­no­va­tion here and abroad, now is the time for prac­tice to catch up with science— whether it is rais­ing the fam­ily court’s age to 21 or 25 or oth­er­wise cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate ap­proach to young adults that re­flects their de­vel­op­men­tal needs and fur­thers public safety.

De­spite the de­vel­op­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween young and fully ma­ture adults, crim­i­nal law draws a stark line at 18. This has been dis­as­trous.


Lu­cas County, Ohio, Ju­ve­nile Court Judge Denise Navarre Cub­bon pre­sides over a meet­ing in her court­room with a ju­ve­nile of­fender.

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