Why fewer states are trying teens as adults

When New York this month raised the age at which young criminal offenders would still be considered juveniles, it was a major change for a state that since 1824 had considered everyone 16 and older as an adult.

New York’s decision to take 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal system, the result of a bipartisan movement to rethink the get-tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s, is the most recent victory in the effort to move away from a focus on harsh prison sentences, particularly for juveniles.

Anti-crime legislation passed decades ago led the United States to incarcerate more of its residents than any other nation by far, and leaders on both sides of the aisle have looked for ways to change this fiscally challenging trend over the past decade.

Most US states, going back to the 1940s, set 18 as the minimum age to be tried as an adult. Yet in the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s, many states began to again make it easier to process young teens in the adult system.

States passed laws to exclude certain serious crimes, including drug crimes, from the juvenile system altogether. Many gave judges and prosecutors more leeway to decide whether a teen should be tried as an adult.

In the wake of New York’s move on April 10, North Carolina is now the only state that considers 16-year-old offenders as adults by default, and one of only six that include 17-year-olds in the adult system.

Jennifer March, executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, marvels at how quickly the “raise-the-age” issue has moved from a grass-roots political push to a significant change in the state’s criminal justice system.

“Four years is short in the life of an advocate,” says Dr. March, whose organization helped establish the state’s “Raise the Age” movement in 2013, when concerns over aggressive policing and calls for criminal justice reform began gaining momentum. “Now we’re hopeful that other states in the country can look to our new law as we roll it out.”

Texas takes action

On April 20 in Texas, one of the six states that considers all 17-year-old offenders as adults, the House passed by a vote of 92 to 52 a similar bill that raises the state’s age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. Now the bill turns to the Texas Senate.

Missouri, another of the six states, is also considering a raise-the-age bill.

According to March, a growing body of research, from studies of adolescent brain development, to the rates of recidivism for young teens convicted in the criminal system, to the emotional and physical perils of prison life for 16- and 17-year-olds, have convinced more and more lawmakers that these young offenders, as well as society as a whole, are better served by the juvenile system.

“This issue, it impacts all of us,” says Jeree Thomas, policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington. “When you think about the costs of incarceration, when you think about the physical…

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