Sixteen States Have Shielded More Juveniles from Adult System Since 2011

Legislation in nearly one-third of states has passed since 2011 that prevent at least some juvenile offenders from involvement in the adult system, according to a report released today by the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ).

“We are seeing state policy makers making change based on solid research and public opinion,” said CFYJ Policy Director Carmen Daughtery. “The research shows that past policies didn’t work to increase public safety or reduce juvenile crime.”

There are four different ways in which recent legislation has shrunk the number of ways in which juvenile offenders might find themselves in adult court, on adult probation, or in jail or prison:

Raising the Age of Jurisdiction

Illinois and Massachusetts both passed laws this year that include 17-year-olds in the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, doubling the number of states that have done so since 2005 (Connecticut and Mississippi are the others).

There are 10 states that still count certain minors as adults without exception:

  • 16- and 17-Year Olds Are Adults: New York, North Carolina
  • 17-Year-Olds Are Adults: Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin

Jail/Prison Removal

Eight states changed laws to categorically block juveniles from spending time in jail or prison, or at least allow judges to consider keeping them out. Such policy changes do not necessarily prevent juveniles from exposure to the adult system, but can prevent their placement in adult facilities before they turn 18.

The Massachusetts “age-raise” law actually might be a harbinger of more action on this front around the country. The law was motivated in part by new federal standards that require those under 18 to be segregated from the rest of the adult inmate population at adult corrections facilities.

Since those new standards (part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act) also preclude the use of solitary to accomplish that separation, Massachusetts opted to cut the problem off at the pass. Other states may choose to shield under-18 offenders from adult facilities entirely instead of dealing with the separation standard.

Transfer Laws

Four states – Ariz., Colo., Nevada and Ohio – passed laws that limited the transfer of juvenile offenders into adult court. Arizona’s law permits criminal court judges to send cases back to juvenile court; Colorado gave teen offenders the right to request a “reverse transfer” hearing to be placed in juvenile court; and Ohio has enabled certain juvenile offenders convicted in adult court to receive a juvenile court sentence.

Additionally, Maryland passed a law that creates a “Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction” to study the current system and potential changes to it. A recent study of juveniles transferred to adult court found that very few ended up with a judge sentencing them to time in prison; most of the cases were dismissed or waived back to juvenile court by an criminal court judge.

Sentencing Laws

Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v Alabama that automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The high court did provide any guidance for states as to what would be acceptable under the Eighth Amendment.

Three states – California, North Carolina and Wyoming – have replaced juvenile LWOP with sentencing schemes that assure some chance at parole. California approved a three-tiered structure for parole eligibility based on sentence length.

North Carolina and Wyoming mandated that all juveniles convicted in adult court have an opportunity for a parole hearing by the 25th year they spend in prison.

In other states, the decisions on what to use instead of LWOP sentences have mostly fallen to judges, and some have chosen to replace them with lengthy sentences that would keep juveniles in prison until they are senior citizens. A Texas law passed this summer replaced juvenile LWOP with a mandatory 40 years-to-life sentence.

Few juvenile advocates have weighed in on appropriate reform of LWOP sentences for juveniles. Mary Lee Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation in Colorado, an advocacy organization that was influential in pushing for her state’s ban on LWOP sentences for juveniles, said a hearing at age 30 is appropriate.

Three other states – Ind., Mo. and Ohio – saw changes to sentencing laws unrelated to LWOP. Indiana judges now have the right to reconsider adult sentences upon a juvenile’s 18th birthday, and Ohio granted its judges the discretion to ignore mandatory sentencing when convicted juveniles were accomplices in a crime, as opposed to the main offender.

Missouri did away with its “once an adult, always an adult” provision, which used to require that any juvenile who had been transferred to adult court for a crime could never be considered a juvenile again.

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

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

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