Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice, testified before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of changing the way the state handles young adults when they run afoul of the law. Vermont is considering raising the age of their family courts’ jurisdiction so that young people up to age 21 can be handled in juvenile courts.
The juvenile court was first established in Chicago in 1899 with the goals of giving young people a chance to turn their lives around by keeping them out of adult jails and prisons, individualizing their treatment, providing them with rehabilitation programs, and protecting their confidentiality.
Without the benefit of sociological, psychological, or neurobiological research on the nature of adolescence, they picked ages for their juvenile courts’ jurisdiction ending at between 16 and 18. Most states increased the ages to 18 shortly thereafter.
Except from the standpoint of research, there really is no “magic birthday” after which young people can be considered fully mature. Research from developmental psychology and neurobiology – or brain science – has found that, in many important respects, young adults ages 18 to 25 are more similar to juveniles than fully mature adults. They’re less future oriented, more susceptible to peer pressure, are more volatile in emotionally charged situations, and take more risks. Also, someone who was functionally an adult in 1899, or even in the 1960s, just isn’t today.
Sociologists have found that there are some major bridges young people need to cross in order to mature out of crime and into adult roles – most particularly stable marriage and steady work. Young males, who make up about 85 percent of all arrests for this age group, get in trouble less frequently if they’re working or spending time with their spouse and family than if they’re hanging out with the boys.
But young people are getting married and establishing careers much later today than they used to, especially if they’re poor and haven’t completed high school. In 1960, 45 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds were married; in 2010, one fifth as many (9 percent) were. Those at most risk for crime – poorly educated minority men – are least likely to married.
So, based on this kind of research, for the first time in the 117-year-history of the juvenile court, policy makers in three states are proposing to raise the age of family court to 21. Connecticut and Illinois are particularly noteworthy since both states raised their family court’s age limit to 18 in 2012 and 2014, respectively. When policy makers there were considering doing so, there were dire warnings of juvenile courts and detention facilities overrun with these slightly older youth, or of 17-year-olds thumbing their noses at law enforcement because they were now handled by the more benign juvenile court.
But quite the opposite happened. Arrests by newly-minted “juveniles” dropped by 39% after Connecticut raised the family court age. Connecticut now has its lowest number of juveniles in pretrial detention, its lowest population in juvenile correctional institutions, and the lowest number of young adult prisoners ages 18 to 21 in its adult prisons in a quarter-century — down 51 percent over the last six years.
Illinois has enjoyed similar successes. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission concluded that their state’s reforms enhanced public safety because adult convictions put youths at greater risk of re-offense by inhibiting education and employability. The commission also found that the juvenile justice system had gotten smaller now than it was before it included 17-year-olds.
The Vera Institute of Justice reported that Illinois’ juvenile crime rate was declining at an annual rate of three percent per year prior to the family court age being raised. After the reforms were implemented, arrests of 17-year-olds were 32 percent lower than the pre-raise-the-age trend. The population of Illinois’ juvenile institutions declined by 43 percent since the reforms began, and the Governor recently proposed to close one of his state’s four remaining juvenile facilities.
America has the world’s largest prison system. One out of five U.S. inmates are young adults, and they have the highest rearrest rates of any age group. If we hope to dig ourselves out of the hole of mass incarceration, crafting a developmentally appropriate response to offending by emerging adults is a good place to start.