State and Local Legislative Options

In the late 1980s and 1990s, nearly every State legislature passed laws placing more youth in the adult criminal justice system. As a result, approximately 250,000 young people are prosecuted as “adults” every year. Lawmakers have stepped up across the country to make changes that reduce the harmful practice of trying youth as adults without compromising public safety. Below are success stories from states which outline the critical features of their successful effort. All of these reforms are profiled in the CFYJ report, State Trends: Legislative Changes from 2005 to 2010 Removing Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System. Each State Success Series includes an explanation of the enacted change and a copy of the legislation to serve as a template for other state legislatures interested in enacting changes to their juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Guide for State Legislators

Juvenile and criminal justice systems are locally controlled so state and local elected officials have an opportunity to shape those systems in ways that best serve the public and the youth who come in contact with them. Here is a basic overview of the areas where state legislatures can make a change and four steps to go about initiating an effort to reform the laws.


Trend 1: Removing Youth from Adult Jails and Prisons

Recognizing the many dangers youth face when incarcerated with adults, several states and local jurisdictions took action to protect youth. Three states (Maine, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) and one local jurisdiction (Multnomah Country, Oregon) either allow or require that youth in the adult system be held in juvenile, instead of adult, facilities. Colorado changed the criteria to determine whether to house youth in a juvenile facility, and also guarantees that youth will receive educational services in adult jails. Finally, New York City has asked the Department of Corrections to collect data on the dangers that youth face in adult jails.

The Colorado Success Story: Educational Services for Youth in Jails

The Maine Success Story: Youth May Begin Their Sentence in a Juvenile Facility

The Multnomah County Success Story: Removing Youth from Jail in Oregon

The New York City Success Story: Collecting Data on Youth in Adult Jails

The Pennsylvania Success Story: Youth Sentenced as Adults May Be Served by Juvenile Facilities

The Virginia Success Story: Allows Youth Tried as Adults to Be Housed in Juvenile Facilities Pretrial

Trend 2: Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

In most states nationwide, adolescents must be 16 to drive; 17 to see R-rated movies; 18 to vote, join the military, or marry without parental consent; and 21 to drink alcohol. These laws indicate a societal understanding that minors are inherently less mature and responsible than adults. While the majority of states have drawn the line at age 18 for their juvenile justice systems, 13 states in the U.S. have set the line at a younger age. Currently, New York and North Carolina both end juvenile court jurisdiction at age 16. Eleven other states end jurisdiction at 17: Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois (felonies only), Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. As a result of these laws, more than two million 16- and 17-year-olds residing in these 13 states would automatically be prosecuted in the adult system if charged with any offense, regardless of the seriousness of the offense or any extenuating circumstances. However, in recent years three states (Connecticut, Illinois, and Mississippi) have raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction.

The Connecticut Success Story: The “Raise the Age CT” Campaign

The Illinois Success Story: Evaluating 17-Year-Old Felony Offenders

The Illinois Success Story: Removing 17‐Year‐Old Misdemeanants from the Adult System

The Mississippi Success Story: Returning the Majority of 17-Year-Olds Back to the Juvenile System

Trend 3: Changing Transfer Laws

States have a variety of mechanisms for transferring children to the adult system. Some states exclude youth charged with certain offenses from the juvenile court. In other states, prosecutors make the decision whether to try a youth as a juvenile or adult. In most instances, juvenile court judges do not make the decision about whether a youth should be prosecuted in adult court, despite the fact that a juvenile court judge is a neutral player who is in the best position to investigate the facts and make the decision. In the past five years, 10 states made changes to their transfer laws. Two states (Arizona and Utah) made it easier for youth who were tried as adults to get reverse waiver hearings to allow them to return to the juvenile court. Three states (Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada) changed the age requirements before youth can be tried as adults. Three states (Indiana, Virginia, and Washington) made changes to “once an adult, always an adult” laws. Four states (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and Indiana) limited the types of offenses that required adult court prosecution or changed the presumptions for adult court prosecution.

The Arizona Success Story: Refining the Age of Eligibility for Adult Prosecution

The Arizona Success Story: Special Treatment for Youth Sex Offenders

The Colorado Success Story: Allowing Young Adults to Be Sentenced in the Youthful Offender System

The Colorado Success Story: Allowing Youth Convicted of Felony Murder to Be Sentenced in the Youthful Offender System

The Colorado Success Story: Series of Reforms to Keep More Youth in the Juvenile System

The Connecticut Success Story: Making 16- and 17-Year-Olds Eligible for Youthful Offender Status

The Delaware Success Story: Reversing Automatic Transfer of Juveniles to the Adult System

The Illinois Success Story: Removing Youth Drug Offenders from the Original Jurisdiction of the Adult Court

The Indiana Success Story: Comprehensive Reform Legislation Limiting the Number of Youth Transferred to the Adult System

The Nevada Success Story: Raising the Age at Which Child May Be Presumptively Certified as an Adult

The Utah Success Story: Authorizing Adult Court Judges to Transfer Youth Back to Juvenile Court

The Virginia Success Story: Narrowing the “Once an Adult, Always an Adult” Law

The Washington Success Story: Narrows Transfer Law and Allows Return to Juvenile Court

Trend 4: Changes to Mandatory Sentencing Laws for Youth

Youth who are prosecuted and sentenced in the adult criminal justice system have historically been subject to the same harsh sentencing laws as adults. Most states have some form of mandatory sentencing laws and few states have statutory exceptions for youth. This means that many states subject youth to harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines without allowing judges to take the child’s developmental differences into account. However, in two recent United States Supreme Court cases, the Court explicitly held that youth are categorically less deserving of these punishments. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty in the case of Roper v. Simmons. In 2010, the Court abolished life without parole sentences for youth convicted of nonhomicide crimes in Graham v. Florida.

Several states (Colorado, Georgia, Texas, and Washington) reexamined how adult sentences are applied to youth and have recognized that youth have great potential for rehabilitation and that the developmental differences of youth should be taken into consideration in sentencing. In the wake of Graham, several additional states will likely be contemplating changes to prevent youth from being sentenced to extreme sentences.

The Colorado Success Story: Abolishing Juvenile Life Without Parole

The Georgia Success Story: Protecting Youth from Disproportionate Sentencing for Sex Offenses

The Texas Success Story: Banning Juvenile Life Without Parole

The Washington Success Story: Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Youth Tried as Adults