Justice for Juveniles: Raising the Age for Inclusion in Juvenile Courts
Over the past 10 years, many states that previously prosecuted 16- and 17-year-old offenders in the adult judicial system have raised the age to 18. This trend has occurred in response to a growing body of research demonstrating the harmful effects of incarcerating children in the adult corrections system, and a corresponding nationwide campaign to “Raise the Age” of adult court jurisdiction. Missouri is now just one of five states[i] where 17-year-olds are still tried as if they were adults, even for minor offenses. However, the Missouri State Legislature is currently considering legislation that would require children under the age of 18 to be prosecuted for most criminal offenses in juvenile courts. In the case of serious crimes, these individuals could still face the possibility of being certified and tried as adults.
Research has demonstrated an average threefold increase in recidivism for youth penalized in the adult criminal justice system compared to the juvenile system1. By contrast, the juvenile justice system has a track record of decreasing recidivism by 34% on average[ii]. This difference can be largely attributed to enhanced, developmentally appropriate resources[iii] for rehabilitation and diversion available to juvenile offenders. As Sheretta Butler-Barnes, PhD, developmental psychologist and Assistant Professor of Social Work at the Brown School states, “Teenagers are still developing cognitively. It makes sense to enact policies that ensure that incarcerated youth are developing in environments most conducive to preserving their safety and encouraging their rehabilitation.”
Unfortunately, because Missouri 17-year-olds are automatically processed through the adult system, they are not able to take advantage of rehabilitative resources offered to juveniles and are thus subject to increased risk, both in terms of personal safety and recidivism, when incarcerated in adult facilities.
Children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons are five times more likely[iv] to be sexually assaulted than their juvenile counterparts and 36 times more likely to commit suicide[v]. Due to increased safety risk, federal law requires juvenile offenders who are incarcerated with adults to be housed separately[vi]. This can result in long periods spent in solitary confinement, with potential for lasting emotional and psychological damage as well as significantly increased housing costs.
The damage inflicted on child offenders penalized in an adult system does not end upon their release. Criminal records can create substantial barriers[vii] to adult employment, education, housing, and military service, which impacts overall prospects for juvenile offenders to live productive lives and increases recidivism risk. These grave effects are borne by individuals who are not old enough to vote, serve in the military, or (most likely) graduate from high school. The course of their adult life is profoundly altered before it even begins.
Raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds will benefit communities as well as offenders, and not just in terms of reduced recidivism. Although there may be an initial increase in state spending due to the transfer of 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile system, the estimated long-term economic benefits[viii] far outweigh the preliminary costs. Employment prospects for youth processed through the juvenile system are significantly better than those involved in the adult system, resulting in higher lifetime earnings and increased tax revenue.
If the experiences of other states that have “raised the age” are any indication, potential costs may not be as high as they seem. In 2013, Illinois’s juvenile system was able to absorb justice-involved 17-year-olds with very few additional resources, despite a (severely inflated) 35% projected increase3 in the population of juvenile offenders. Similarly, in 2014, New Hampshire was able to incorporate their 17-year-old offender population into the juvenile system with no additional dollars3 spent despite a $5.3 million projected price tag. Missouri has experienced a 32% decrease[ix] in the number of incarcerated youth since 2013 and is therefore well-positioned to transfer the 17-year-olds currently in the adult justice system into the juvenile system.
Bunts, W., Polokonis, K., True, S., Thurman, A, Ward, E. , Parker, G. (2018). Justice for Juveniles: Raising the age for inclusion in juvenile courts. The Clark-Fox Policy Institute, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
[i] Raise the Age Missouri. (n.d.). Retrieved May 4, 2018, from https://www.raisetheage.com/
[ii] Mcgowan, A., Hahn, R., Liberman, A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M., Johnson, R., . . . Stone, G. (2007). Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles from the Juvenile Justice System to the Adult Justice System. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(4), 7-28. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2006.12.003
[iii] Raise the Age (Rep.). (2017, March 7). Retrieved May 4, 2018, from Justice Policy Institute website: https://tinyurl.com/ybaopt6a
[iv] J. (2003, September 04). S.1435 – 108th Congress (2003-2004): Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Retrieved May 4, 2018, from https://tinyurl.com/y9zk387z
[v] Arya, N., Ryan, L., Sandoval, J., & Kudrna, J. (2007, November). Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America(Rep.). Retrieved May 4, 2018, from A Campaign for Youth Justice website: https://tinyurl.com/y8rlphjz
[vii] Solomon, A. L. (2012). In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment. National Institute of Justice,270. Retrieved May 4, 2018, from https://tinyurl.com/ydzcw323
[viii] Mitchell, D. M. (2017, November). Economic Costs and Benefits of Raise the Age Legislation in Missouri(Rep.). Retrieved May 4, 2018, from Missouri State University website: https://tinyurl.com/yclsp75h
[ix] Becker, P. (2017). Annual Report Fiscal Year 2017(United States, Missouri Department of Social Services, Division of Youth Services). Jefferson City, MO.