By Anne-Lise Vray & Jessica Sandoval
Over the past few years, voices asking to raise the age of criminal responsibility beyond age 18 have emerged. As a leader in the youth justice field, the Campaign for Youth Justice plays an important role in ending the prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration of youth in the adult criminal justice system. CFYJ accomplishes this in three ways, through (1) state and federal advocacy, by providing technical assistance and training support, (2) strategic communications, by lifting the voices of those most impacted, and (3) research, by serving as a clearinghouse of information and effective alternatives. As the only national organization dedicated to this issue, we were interested in finding out what raising the age to 21 practically and logistically imply, especially in order to address the concerns of many stakeholders in the field – particularly those who fear that it is dangerous to house youth over 18 with younger children.
To determine current practice on the ways states with extended juvenile court jurisdiction beyond age 18, we interviewed juvenile justice department administrators in the states who have extended age of juvenile court jurisdiction 21 and up to 25. From these interviews, the following themes emerged:
- Programming looks the same across populations;
- Housing youth up to age 25 in juvenile facilities does not add any extra challenges to behavior and safety;
- The average length of stay in committed facilities ranges from 7.5 months to 37 months for 18-25 year-olds;
- Risk assessment is always used, regardless of age; Re-entry programs are not different for older youth; Housing separation based on age is not necessary; and
- The juvenile justice system is where this older population of youth belongs.
Overall, our interviewees agreed upon the fact that these older youth were better served in the juvenile justice system, where they can – unlike in the adult system - receive educational programs, appropriate treatments, and actually be rehabilitated. They also addressed the concerns about these young adults having a bad influence on younger children, and asserted that putting them together could actually have a positive effect, while no particular additional behavioral challenges could be observed. “There are 15 year olds housed with 24 year olds. The kids go where their needs are best met, regardless of their age. Instances of victimization are very rare because of the big brother mentality that develops between older youth and younger kids,” one of the interviewees told CFYJ.
According to adolescent brain science, a young person’s brain is not fully developed until they reached their mid-20s. The interviewees were aware of the research, and many of them used it as a base to defend the system in place in their state. “Brain development science shows that the juvenile justice system is still the appropriate setting for this older population, regardless of crime, based on culpability, etc…,” a juvenile justice department leader told us. The evidence presented by brain development science is indeed what one the main reasons to raise the question of extending juvenile jurisdiction to this older population in the first place.
This piece of research conducted by CFYJ modestly contributes to informing the field about the pros and cons of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction beyond 18, what factors may be present, and if it’s the appropriate time to consider this option.