JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM
Not that long ago, 17 years ago to be exact, the voters in California were in a get tough on juvenile crime mood. Proposition 21, the Juvenile Crime Initiative, was passed by a wide majority of California voters. The proposition dismantled much of the juvenile justice system, sending many juveniles to adult court and ultimately to adult prison. It didn’t take long before key components of prop 21 were reversed by California voters when Proposition 57 passed this past November. Since passage of Pop 57, all but the most serious of juvenile crime cases are sent to the juvenile court. The juvenile may still end up before the adult court, but the juvenile judge must make that decision. Previously, many juvenile cases went straight to adult court.
California is not the only state to realize that most juveniles do not belong in adult courts and prisons. Treating juvenile crime as adult crime does little to “reform” the juvenile offender and perhaps has the opposite effect. When Connecticut stopped sending its 16-18 year old’s to adult court beginning in 2012, the state saw many positive effects, including a dramatic decrease in crimes committed by young adults aged 18-21; this effect no doubt having to do with the emphasis on intervention, rather than punishment of the under age 18 offender.
Let’s start with the established fact that the brains of young people, perhaps up to the age of 25 or so, but certainly teen brains, are not fully developed. The areas of the brain that control our decision-making processes, impulsivity, and other activities that may propel a teen into crime are still forming during the crucial teen years. We call this as “immaturity” but it is really much more. Teen brains, often influenced by certain environmental factors, don’t always have the capacity to “do the right thing” and are certainly more vulnerable to impulsive and risky behaviors.
When a teenager is confronted with the adult justice system for crimes such as petty theft, drug possession, or even more serious categories of crimes, the teen is placed in a system designed to punish, which does not provide the type of counseling and support these at-risk youths need. Common sense would tell us that placing the teen in the adult system, with the additional stigma of an adult criminal record that will follow the teen throughout his or her life, might not be the most effective way to give the teen a chance to mature and become a law-abiding adult. A recent study produced by the Harvard Kennedy School found that leaving juveniles to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction has big impact in reducing arrests, court caseloads, and incarceration costs.
The trend is toward recognizing that a teenager is not an adult and teen crime is better served in the juvenile justice system, where the emphasis is on treatment and rehabilitation and where tools are available to address the teen’s environment. At the forefront of this movement is a push to recognize that a person’s brain does not become magically turn into an adult brain at the age of 18. Some advocates for juvenile justice reform are proposing that juvenile justice extend to “emerging adults” or those who are under 21. Emerging adult arrest and incarceration are disproportionately represented in arrests and incarcerations. This age group also has the highest recidivism rates. Is it any wonder? This age group is marked as an emotionally volatile and experimental stage of life. And after all, our laws tacitly acknowledge that 18-21 year old’s are not exactly adults – they can’t drink alcohol or consume recreational marijuana.
The state of Connecticut may be the first in the country to move some crimes committed by these young people age 18- 21 into the juvenile justice system. Legislation is currently proposed that, if passed in the state, would divert approximately 1/3 of the emerging adult crimes to juvenile court jurisdiction. Other states are considering similar proposals. As a practitioner in juvenile defense, I am all for these reforms. I believe many at-risk youths–even the older “emerging adults”—would be much better served by the more compassionate justice meted out by the juvenile courts, to the benefit not only of the individual but to society at large.
With almost 25 year of experience in criminal defense, including juvenile defense, William Weinberg is available to consult with you regarding your or your child’s criminal matter. You can reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.