In this month’s Reclaiming Futures newsletter, we turn our attention to one of the most important threads in the juvenile justice reform narrative of the past 15 years: the debate regarding the age of adult responsibility in the criminal justice system. In the past decade, we have gained an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the neuroscience of adolescent behavior; this has transformed the way juvenile justice stakeholders view a delinquent youth’s culpability and has guided the field to question the efficacy of traditional juvenile justice responses to delinquency. Furthermore, a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute points out that cost-benefit studies have consistently contradicted the common anxiety that raising the age will flood the juvenile system with cases and generate unmanageable costs. Finally, there has been an increasing openness over the years to view court-involved youth in a less punitive, more humanistic and developmentally appropriate light that also accounts for the ways that adverse childhood experiences, and mental health and substance use problems, can drive the behaviors that get youth in trouble with the law. However, none of these shifts have moved the needle on the persistent racial and ethnic disparities that plague both the juvenile and adult justice systems. The executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, Marc Schindler, interviewed for a recent NPR piece on the role of race in the raise-the-age policy discussion and reminds us that the policies driving more youth into the adult criminal justice system have a disproportionate impact on youth of color.
Advocates and state policymakers have increasingly been able to leverage these insights to advance the raise-the-age conversation and, as a result, the number of states that automatically prosecute 16 and 17 year old youth in adult court has dropped 50% in ten years from 14 states to just 7 states. Other states, like Connecticut, have taken these insights and the adolescent brain development research to another level and have begun exploring the merits of raising the age to 21. Connecticut has truly been on the cutting edge in these discussions and recently launched an innovative pilot program that radically re-imagines incarceration for young adults up to the age of 25. At the other end of the continuum – and in spite of where the rest of the country seems to be moving – New York and North Carolina remain the only two states in the country to prosecute 16-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. The fact that NYC continues to lock up 16-year-old adolescents in a violent and traumatizing setting like Rikers Island, and is still unable to mobilize the political will to raise the age, shows how far we still have to go to recognize the collateral consequences that these policies can have.