Academia: Handle Young Adults Differently, But Not As Juveniles

Last September, the Harvard Kennedy School and National Institute of Justice co-published a call to include 18- to 21-year-olds in the juvenile justice system:

Our central recommendation is that the age of juvenile court jurisdiction be raised to at least 21 years old with additional, gradually diminishing protections for young adults up to age 24 or 25.

Among the arguments made for this shift: It couldn’t possibly be worse than what’s happening now…

Clearly, the current system is not effectively reducing future criminality among this age group. This matters, because relatively few justice-involved individuals commit their first offense past the age of 25, so the outcomes for this population have large and long-lasting consequences for future offending, and for public safety as a whole.

A few months later, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) lent real-world credibility to the idea by endorsing it as a plan for his state. A sign of the rapid shift in thinking in the fifth state: Ten years ago, Connecticut didn’t even include 16- and 17-year-olds in its juvenile justice system.

Now, a group of well-respected professors and researchers has voiced opposition to this concept via the op-ed section of the New York Times. From a late April column by Laurence Steinberg (Temple), Thomas Grisso (University of Massachusetts), Elizabeth Scott (Columbia) and Richard Bonnie (University of Virginia):

Changes in the ways in which we treat young adult offenders are long overdue. This group has its own distinctive educational and mental health needs. But that’s an argument for treating them as a special category of offenders in the adult justice system, not raising the juvenile jurisdictional age.

The research and policy work of all four op-ed authors was cited in the Harvard study, so it is certainly noteworthy that said academicians do not support the conclusions drawn from their work. It is clear that they think the jury is out (pun intended!) on a brain development argument for juvenile expansion.

We know that brain maturation continues past age 18, but it is not clear that the brains of 20-year-olds are so immature that they should be treated as if they are teenagers.

They are much more receptive to the concept of a “young adult system,” some way of differentiating between 18- to 24-year-olds and older offenders in the criminal justice system. The Chronicle published an early call for such a system, penned by Tracy Velázquez, in May of 2013. [Click here to read that.]

Bonnie, who is a law professor at the University of Virginia, told YSI in an e-mail that the authors do support different approaches to handling young adult offenders, but in the adult system. We asked him about the proposed California plan, cited in the Harvard paper, that would see two large prisons established to work with 18- to 24-year-olds.

“In principle, we are in favor of such special facilities,” said Bonnie.

Steinberg used the same phrase, but with a dose of caution.

“Sounds good in principle but we need to see the actual implementation to know for sure,” he said, in an e-mail to YSI.

Two additional thoughts on the subject:

First, it is important to note that the proposal only relates to original jurisdiction of a case. Because the majority of states – all but Texas and Oklahoma, in fact – allow the juvenile justice system to retain jurisdiction over a youth beyond his or her 18th birthday.

The majority, 36 states, cut off extended age jurisdiction at 20. Six states permit jurisdiction to 21 or older, and three states – New Jersey, Colorado and Hawaii – do not have a set age threshold.

In California, this means state juvenile correction facilities can hold a juvenile all the way up to his 24th birthday. Meanwhile, those juveniles transferred to and convicted in adult court are only held in juvenile facilities until 18, at which point they are transferred to adult facilities.

A second thought worth noting is that the other way in which states retain custody of youths, through foster care, has already experienced a “lengthening the runway” policy movement. In 2008, former President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allows states to expand the age of foster care to 21 with federal funding participation.

Thus far, 23 states have taken the feds up on that offer and extended foster care beyond the age of 18. Alaska is moving toward becoming state 24, and we hear that Ohio is likely to make it an even half of the country during its next legislative session.

But there is a big difference in logic between extending the age of foster care and extending the age of juvenile jurisdiction. In a way, the foster care extension is about system culpability. The goal for all child welfare-involved kids is permanency, so the notion of them aging out is a tacit failure by the system. Extending foster care to 21 is, more than anything, an acknowledgment that systems ought to at least invest in that transition to adult life.

An expansion of juvenile justice is, to some extent, a referendum on personal culpability. Yes, the lives of some young offenders have been marred by trauma. But expanding the age of juvenile justice is tantamount to an assertion that the decision-making maturity of 18- to 21-year-olds is far more akin to that of teens than it is to 22- to 24-year-olds.

Steinberg, Grisso, Scott and Bonnie – who have authored a lot of the research on this subject – are adamant that their work so far has not established the grounds for such a shift.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 351 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at