This year, legislators in both New York and North Carolina took great steps towards improving public safety and providing meaningful rehabilitative services to young people across their states. Elected leaders in both of these states raised the age at which youth will be handled in family court, joining the growing national consensus that youth under 18 years of age should not be in the adult criminal justice system. Raising the age means that young people will be more likely to be provided the necessary therapeutic services they need, while enhancing public safety. We applaud these legislators who recognized that the state can better spend taxpayer dollars and cut costs by passing this historic effort.
By passing this legislation, New York State and North Carolina are on a path to improved public safety, wiser use of tax dollars, and most importantly, safer and more humane treatment of youth in the justice system.
With the two largest states where 16 and 17-year-olds were automatically excluded from the juvenile justice system having raised the age, it is only a matter of when, not if, the remaining five states where 17-year-olds are automatically in the adult system due to their age will change their laws. “Raising the Age: Shifting to a Safer and More Effective Juvenile Justice System” a report issued earlier this year by the Justice Policy Institute, highlights how this shift in policies can help improve public safety, effectively manage taxpayer dollars, and keep young people safe. The report highlights examples from Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts, states that recently raised the age and in turn, saw a continuing decline in juvenile crime rates while also keeping costs in check.
Over the past decade, the number of youth under age 18 in the adult justice system nationwide has been nearly cut in half. This is largely due to raise the age policies, where states have shifted to allow 16 and 17 years to be served under the jurisdiction of family courts. Half the states that excluded children from family court based solely on their age have changed policies, resulting in tens of thousands of youth receiving better treatment, taxpayer dollars being used more effectively, and states embracing a more effective approach to public safety.
While legislation to raise the age in Texas, Michigan and Missouri failed to be enacted this year, in part due to concerns over implementation costs, progress was still made. A bill in Texas to raise the age passed the Texas House. In order to encourage passage in the state Senate, where concerns over costs stymied the legislation, one legislator stated “their concerns with public safety and costs are well-intentioned. However, there is a robust amount of data that reveals that raising the age is effective in facilitating safe communities and efficient reducing juvenile recidivism, and thereby, achieving savings.”
In Michigan, a commission that includes county-based juvenile justice systems is planning how 17-year-olds could be absorbed into the juvenile justice system. Two Michigan researchers participating in raise the age planning noted that, based on what happened in other states, “we are confident Michigan can match these public-safety, youth-development, and cost-containment outcomes. In fact, some counties are already diverting thousands of young people from the justice system. Michigan has fiscal incentives that are helping counties build options so that young people can avoid unnecessary contact with the justice system.”
In Missouri, where some opposed a law change because of implementation costs, the former head of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association noted that, “those who oppose this legislation agree it is the right thing to do for kids.”
Raise the age policies are a crucial component to moving youth past delinquency and successfully transitioning them into adulthood. By investing in community-based services, support , and opportunities for young people, raising the age provides a more developmentally appropriate approach to treating youth in the justice system. Beyond positive outcomes for young people, raise the age laws have been shown to improve public safety. It is now generally accepted as a truism that raising the age results in better youth outcomes when young people encounter the justice system. It is only a matter of time until the remaining five states will raise the age.
Marcy Mistrett is chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice. Marc Schindler is executive director at the Justice Policy Institute.