Since 2015, more than one-third of states have taken legislative action, executive action or both to limit the number of juvenile offenders who are exposed to adult court or adult incarceration facilities.
So says “Raising the Bar,” a report on state juvenile justice trends released today by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization focused on keeping youths out of the adult criminal justice system.
Following is a rundown of the ways in which 19 different states amended their laws and policies to keep more youths in the juvenile justice system.
Age of Jurisdiction
The most straightforward inclusion of youth in the adult system occurs in states that consider people under the age of 18 to be adults in the eyes of the law. In 2007, there were 14 states that still counted certain minors as adults without exception. By 2013, it was down to 10.
That number is now down to five: Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin. All five have legislative bills in the hopper to raise the age of jurisdiction to 18.
The past three years have brought age-raising bills in South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina and New York. The latter two were the only states in the union to automatically include 16-year-olds in the adult system. Both of them will include most under-18 youth in the juvenile system by 2019.
Limiting The Transfer Process
Every state has at least one mechanism to transfer juvenile offenders into adult court, and most states have more than one. Since 2015, ten states have acted to shield some juveniles from these mechanisms.
Age Threshold: Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey raised the lowest age at which a youth could be mandatorily transferred (15 for Connecticut and New Jersey, 16 for Illinois). Kansas and Vermont established minimum ages at which a youth could even be considered for transfer (14 in Kansas, 12 in Vermont).
Process: California now mandates that decisions to transfer a youth to adult court must factor in age, maturity and a slew of other indicators. Texas passed a bill that permits juveniles to appeal a transfer decision immediately, as opposed to waiting for conviction in adult court.
Automatic Transfers: Illinois and Utah passed laws that lower the number of serious offenses that trigger an automatic transfer of youths to adult court.
Limiting Transfer Power
California and Vermont rolled back the ability of prosecutors to directly file certain juveniles in adult court. California’s action was prompted by a state ballot initiative, Proposition 57. It reverses a state ballot initiative from 2000, Proposition 21, that first gave California prosecutors the broad ability to directly file youth in adult court.
Delaware has a passed, but not yet signed, bill that gives adult court judges the ability to send a case back to juvenile court. This would be a significant check on the many automatic paths to transfer in Delaware, including any 15-year-old charged with a felony while in possession of a firearm.
Delaware already empowers its attorney general’s office to send an automatically transferred youth back to juvenile court if it serves the interest of justice.
Indiana has passed a law that now permits adult court judges to consider waiving a youth back into juvenile court after an automatic transfer.
Housing Juveniles in Adult Facilities
Even when youths are tried and convicted in adult court, some states house them in juvenile justice facilities until at least the age of 18. Other states will send transferred juveniles into the same facilities that house adult inmates.
In 2012, years after the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law, the Justice Department finally finalized the regulations required to protect inmates from sexual violence. Among the rules: teens who are tried as adults and placed in adult facilities must be kept completely walled off, virtually at all times, from adult inmates.
This makes it very hard to keep teens on the same grounds and stay in compliance, and several states have given up trying to do it. And that is perhaps the biggest reason why there were 2,779 youths in adult prison in 2009, and 993 in 2015, according to federal data.
Certainly there are other factors contributing to this decline, including the overall downward trends in youth arrests and incarceration. But it’s no coincidence that much of the state action here has occurred since PREA regulations were made final.
“Since 2005, 17 states and the District of Columbia have limited or removed youth from adult jails and prisons,” the report says. “Half of these states engaged in reforms between 2015 and 2017.”
Click here to read the full report.