Why including emerging adults in CT’s juvenile justice system makes sense
Gov. Dannel Malloy is again proposing that Connecticut become the first state in United States history to include most emerging adults – those ages 18, 19 and 20 – who have committed crimes into its juvenile court. He has also put forth a second bill that would provide confidentiality protections for low-risk emerging adults in the adult system, offering them a carrot for good behavior by erasing their criminal record if they don’t re-offend for four years.
As he emphasized in his State of the State Address, “everyone deserves a legitimate second chance. This includes our youngest adults who are just beginning to build a life of their own.”
Both applied research and Connecticut’s own experience with raising the age of juvenile court suggest that the Constitution State would be on strong ground to move in the direction the administration has proposed.
Connecticut’s experience, like that of other states, with raising the age of juvenile court to age 18 from age 16 since 2007 has been extraordinary. While critics warned of rising crime and overburdened courts and youth prisons, exactly the opposite has happened.
According to a Justice Policy Institute report, Connecticut budget forecasters predicted that raising the age of juvenile court would increase the state’s juvenile justice budget by $100 million. That didn’t happen: rather, the juvenile justice budget declined from $139 million in 2001-02 to $137 million in 2011-12. Moreover, the number of youth incarcerated in the Connecticut Juvenile Training School is at a historic low, prompting its planned closure this July.
Juvenile crime also plunged after the age of juvenile court was raised. After 16-year-olds were incorporated into the juvenile system, their arrests plummeted 28 percent more than previous years’ trends predicted. A report we conducted at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government showed that, from 2008 to 2015, juvenile arrests declined an astounding 68 percent compared to a 44 percent decline in overall arrests in Connecticut during that time. Research consistently shows that youth tried as adults get rearrested more frequently than those retained in juvenile court.
Of course emerging adults aren’t juveniles. Developmental research shows they are in between juveniles and adults developmentally, more volatile in emotionally charged settings, more susceptible to peer influence, less future oriented and greater risk-takers than older adults. This is why they can’t legally purchase handguns or drink alcohol, and why it’s difficult for them to rent cars.
But it’s not just age that changes people, it’s experience. Occupying adult roles helps young people mature out of delinquent behavior. Completing one’s education, getting a job and getting married have all been shown to help young people – particularly young males who commit most crime – matriculate out of criminality. As young people accrue these experiences with age, their arrest rates take a nose dive.
But these milestones are greatly inhibited by a criminal record or a stint in jail. Sadly, youth of color bear a disproportionate burden, constituting 85 percent of the total population of that age group in Connecticut’s prisons in 2015.
Raising the age of juvenile court to include most emerging adults (except, as specified in the bill, those charged with the most serious offenses) will fulfill two key goals simultaneously. First, it will provide greater access to rehabilitative programming for young adults who get very little help in the adult system. Second, it will prevent them from accruing adult criminal records or jail experience. That’s why, since Gov. Malloy originally proposed to incorporate emerging adults into the juvenile court, elected officials in three other states – Illinois, Massachusetts and Vermont – have proposed similar legislation.
Emerging adulthood is an age of opportunity. It’s when many of us as parents are dreaming of our children’s prospects, helping them through college with the hopes of a bright future.
It’s also a time when people make mistakes, mostly small ones but sometimes not. Gov. Malloy’s proposal will allow the system to hold high school and college-age young people accountable for their behavior and help them turn their lives around, while still allowing those convicted of more serious crimes to be held accountable in adult court. It’s an idea whose time has come and is worthy of the legislature’s support.
Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work and co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab. He is former Commissioner of New York City Probation. Lael Chester is Director of the Emerging Adult Project at the Justice Lab.
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