Why We Need to Change the Way We Handle Justice for Young Adults

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York. (
A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Today I testified before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of changing the way the Green Mountain State handles young adults when they run afoul of the law. Like policy makers in the states of Connecticut and Illinois, Vermonters are considering raising the age of their family courts' jurisdiction so that young people up to age 21 can be handled in juvenile courts.

For those of us who follow juvenile justice, the fact that three states are considering raising the age of their family courts to 21 is nothing short of revolutionary. The juvenile court was first established in Chicago in 1899 by the founding mother trio of Jane Addams, Lucy Flower and Julia Lathrop, members of the legendary Hull House in Chicago's South Side. Their goals were unabashedly progressive, to give 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 so that their lives weren't ruined by mistakes made in their youth.

They didn't have any sociological, psychological, or neurobiological research on the nature of adolescence so, based on the customs of the time, they and states that followed picked ages for their juvenile courts' jurisdiction ending at between 16 and 18. Most states increased the ages to 18 shortly thereafter. Right now, of the nine states that have a juvenile court age limit set under 18, all but one (Georgia) has legislation pending or expected this year to raise the age to 18.

But, before this year, no state had proposed going beyond that "magic birthday."

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. Especially the males. Especially in the presence of peers. Especially if they've suffered brain trauma, which half of young entrants to jails have.

Furthermore, adolescence has become elongated over the past few decades in ways that stretches these already strained emerging adults' ability to defer gratification and resist peers. 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.

Young black males are overrepresented in prison at 7 to 9 times the rate of young white males. Part of the reason for that is that two-thirds of black males who don't finish high school go to prison by their mid-30's. And in many American cities, half or more of black males don't complete high school. Unlike previous generations, there are few work alternatives for those without a high school education - except prison.

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.

Beyond these three states' dramatic proposals, many jurisdictions are taking incremental steps to reduce the number of young adults getting incarcerated and improve their outcomes. New York City's Federal Courts have established specialized young adult courts as have local courts in Omaha, Nebraska and San Francisco. Maine and Pennsylvania have special prisons for young adults, and New York City and several counties in Massachusetts are planning special young adult units in their jails. Probation departments in San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and New York City have created specialized young adult caseloads. Several non-profits focus on this age group, from Roca and UTEC in Massachusetts, to CASES, Common Justice and the Center for Court Innovation in New York. There is so much innovation emerging in this area that the Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice launched an on-line clearinghouse on it this week and the Justice Department is gathering information on programs and strategies in effect for this population nationally.

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.

Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice.