Transforming the System


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Raising the age of criminal responsibility

We all want safer, more just communities for our children. But the criminal justice system has at times treated children like adults. “Adolescents are children, and prosecuting and placing them in the adult criminal justice system doesn’t work for them and doesn’t work for public safety.” We know that adolescents are still developing with limited ability to properly judge their actions. We also know that they are highly amenable to change and rehabilitation. Yet, those who are tried and sentenced as adults, having spent critical years of maturation and personal development in cages, are more likely to recidivate after their sentence and more likely to engage in a lifelong relationship with the criminal justice system. “Studies have shown that young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system have approximately 34% more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system.  Around 80% of youth released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes.” What’s more, when sentenced to lengthy sentences, youths are more likely to commit suicide. Some states routinely try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Each year in New York alone, which prosecutes all people over 16 as adults, over 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court– the vast majority for low-level crimes (75.3% are misdemeanors). “Fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. Some states set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13.”

Yet, extensive research has shown that the relevant parts of the brain that govern “impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, and other characteristics that make people morally culpable” do not reach maturity until the early or mid-twenties. Contrary to the arbitrary designation of 18 as the age of maturity, experts place the “biological” age of maturity between 22 and 25 years of age.

To remedy this situation, Congress and state legislatures should:

  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility in adult court to at least 18 years of age in every jurisdiction in the country including instituting a minimum age for processing in adult criminal court where none exists; and
  • Progressively raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to at least 21 years old with additional, gradually diminishing protections for young adults up to age 24 or 25.

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