Several States Ponder Expansion of Juvenile Justice Beyond 18

The movement to raise the age of juvenile justice systems around the country is continuing, with several states considering a move beyond the age of 18. At least nine states are expected to consider proposals that would expand the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system during the current legislative season, according to a press briefing held last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois and Arizona have all seen legislation introduced this year that would include more older teens and young adults in their juvenile justice system. And Colorado may pass a law to create a study group to consider the feasibility of raising the age of their system.

In Illinois, which raised its age to 18 several years ago, a bill in the works right now would actually raise the age of jurisdiction up to age 21, but only for misdemeanor offenses.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Arizona bills would include 18-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, resetting the age of adulthood at 19 for the courts and law enforcement.

While Connecticut considers expanded jurisdiction of juveniles, another state lawmaker has also proposed a repeal of the state’s 2007 Raise the Age law, which would revert Connecticut back to considering 16-year-olds as adults. Neither bill is likely to pass this year, Youth Services Insider is told, as the state sorts out closure of its main juvenile justice incarceration facility.

These states would all follow Vermont, which last year became the first state in the nation to expand juvenile justice beyond age 18. By the year 2022, with some exceptions for violent offenses, all teens including 19-year-olds, will be treated as juveniles.

Every state has policies that allow youths accused of certain offenses (especially older teens) to be transferred from the juvenile justice system and tried as adults. But only a few states still set their “age of jurisdiction” below 18, meaning they view some set of minors as adults when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Fourteen states fit that bill in 2007. By 2013, as more states took on so-called “Raise the Age” bills, it was down to 10, as states including New York, North Carolina and Illinois increased their boundaries of their juvenile justice systems.

Last year, after Missouri raised its age to 18, just four states remained with a juvenile system that did not include 17-year-olds: Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin.

All four of those states are expected to have “Raise the Age” bills in the hopper this year, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. One has already been introduced in Texas.

Michigan came close to raising the age last year, but the process was slowed greatly as committees with oversight on children and families legislated in the wake of the Larry Nasser scandal at Michigan State University. Advocates in the state believe there is a good chance to pass the slate of bills necessary to make it happen — it is mostly about figuring out how to implement the change in order to pose no additional costs for counties.

Among the other legislative efforts being tracked by Campaign for Youth Justice:

Repealing Measure 11. In 1995, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 11, a get-tough law that forced the state to try youths as adults for 21 different crimes, and mandated a set of mandatory-minimum sentences for teens convicted of those crimes.

A set of bills have been introduced this year that is aimed at pulling back on the mandatory-minimum sentences under Measure 11. Because it was a voter-initiated law, this will require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Limiting Transfers. New Jersey and Florida are considering bills that would eliminate the mandatory transfer of juveniles for certain alleged offenses. Florida’s flurry of reform bills could also remove the power of prosecutors to directly file in adult court when youths are under the age of 16 and would institute a reverse waiver, which empowers a judge to kick a case in adult system back to juvenile court.

Kentucky has a law in the works that would have it join Massachusetts and California as the only states to ban the transfer of any juvenile under the age of 16.

Click here to access the Campaign for Youth Justice’s weekly roundup of state-based legislation on juvenile justice.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.