Should 18, 19 and 20-year-olds be treated as juveniles instead of adults in the criminal justice system? The governor of Connecticut thinks so and has introduced a juvenile justice reform plan that would increase the age that young offenders would be processed through adult courts to 21. If the proposal passes, the age would be raised for all criminal offenses except for assault with a firearm, murder, and rape.
The governor attempted to get Connecticut lawmakers to adopt these reforms last year, however, the idea never made it out of the state legislature. If the reforms are adopted this year, the state would be the first in the country to raise the age of juvenile offenders past the age of 18. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Vermont are all considering similar reforms, however, nothing has been passed in any of those states yet.
Until a few years ago, many states used the age of 16 as the cutoff between juvenile justice and adult courts. Connecticut was one of several that raised that age to 18. The justification for using 18-years-of-age as the juvenile system cutoff was that this is the age that Americans are allowed to vote, enlist in the armed services, and obtain credit.
However, a new study by researchers from Harvard University classifies those between the ages of 18 through 21 as emerging adults, “somewhere between childhood and fully mature, independent adulthood.”
The research team points out that emerging adults are still going through brain development. They think this explains why there is such a high recidivism rate for emerging adults who are prosecuted through the adult court system. According to their statistics, between 34 and 77 percent of young offenders are likely to be arrested again.
There is also a higher percentage of emerging adults who are prosecuted in the adult court system being rearrested for violent crimes compared to those who were prosecuted through the juvenile justice system.
Whereas the adult court system focuses on punishment, the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation and giving the offender a second chance. If the reforms are passed, it is estimated that approximately 10,000 offenders will be kept in the Connecticut juvenile justice system annually, which is roughly 10 percent of the state’s total number of yearly arrests.
Although it would initially mean more costs for the state’s juvenile justice budget, the savings would come from stopping the cycle of recidivism and keeping these emerging adults out of the state’s prison system.
Under the current system, juveniles age out of the system once they turn 18. With the new reforms, they would instead be kept in the juvenile system and still be under close supervision, as well as having counseling and educational programs available to them. It would also mean that the offender would not have an adult criminal record, a factor that can hinder a successful future because of the way that record can put the brakes on educational opportunities, job opportunities, and even a person’s ability to get approved for a rental lease or mortgage.
After looking at the governor’s proposed reforms, as well as the information from the Harvard study, defense attorney Mark Sherman agreed that the reforms have merit. “It can be tragic when a young person makes an error in judgment because of their age or maturity level and that mistake ends up haunting them for the rest of their lives. I think this proposal is a step in the right direction for juvenile justice reforms.”