Juvenile offenders in our country have had their own criminal justice system for more than 100 years. Since that time, 18 years of age has been the threshold for moving a person from that system to the adult system. Of course, we read of unique circumstances in which a child under age 18 is tried as an adult, but 18 has been the cut-off as a general rule in our country.
While 18 may have seemed like an appropriate age way back then, we know much more today than we did 100 years ago. Because of this knowledge, we need to expand the protections and programs of family court to young adults.
Why is 18 the Magic Number?
The age of 18 was set when the juvenile justice system was first established in Illinois back in 1899. Rather than being based on clinical evidence, it was an arbitrary choice based on mores and customs of the day. As of 1910, 32 states had set up juvenile courts and/or probation services. Fifteen years later, all but two states had done the same.
Medical research, however, has shown that the brain doesn’t completely develop until an individual is in their mid-20’s, which is much later than was originally thought. These young adults are more similar to adolescents than to mature adults in important ways. They’re more apt to cave to peer pressure and are less future-oriented and more volatile in emotionally charged settings. Today’s adolescents are taking longer to become adults than previous generations. They finish college, find jobs, get married, and start out on their own later in life compared to when their parents did.
The cut-off for juvenile court at 18 has had some real negative effects. A recent article from The Washington Post reported that 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds released from prison are rearrested and about half of them return to prison within three years—the highest recidivism rate of any age group.
What Can Be Done?
More must be done to recognize improved treatment of young adults and give them greater protections in our court system, so that these individuals have an opportunity to move ahead, rather than back to prison. Thousands of youth under 18 were tried as adults last year, and those found guilty are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. The Huffington Post reported last year that a study found that juveniles who faced time in the adult prison system had 34% more rearrests than those who had stayed in the juvenile system.
With these types of numbers in mind, several states, such as Florida, Michigan and New York, have enacted laws that permit young adults’ convictions to remain confidential. For example, San Francisco’s probation office now has a special caseload category for “transitional-aged youth,” and recently the city established a specialized youth court.
There are currently 15 states and Washington D.C. which authorize prosecutors to decide whether to move juveniles to adult courts. In other states, that decision is up to a judge. Some of those 15 states are trying to change their laws and place this important decision only with the court.
Change is happening: in addition, the number of juveniles tried as adults in South Florida has decreased. For example, in Palm Beach County, it went from 336 in fiscal year 2009-2010 to 139 last fiscal year.
More change is needed, such as raising the family court’s age cut-off to 21 or 25—or perhaps developing a separate approach to young adults that reflects their developmental needs and is in line with the goals of our society.