Roughly 100,000 fewer youth will enter the adult criminal justice system this year and in future years, as a result of a quiet but powerful reform movement known as “Raise the Age.”
The advocacy campaign that began in Connecticut in 2007 has spread to 10 other states, lifting the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for all but the most serious crimes.
According to a new national report, the reform allowed those tens of thousands of young people to avoid criminal records and serving time in notorious prisons like New York City’s Rikers Island.
In its study released Friday, The Sentencing Project also found that contrary to widely held concerns, states that have raised the age have not generally had to build or expand juvenile lockups to handle the influx of 16- and 17-year-olds who would have otherwise been confined in adult facilities. For example, despite what local officials had anticipated, South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice spent $5 million less in 2019, the first year that state’s raise the age law went into effect.
One reason for the lower costs nationwide is that the number of juvenile arrests has been falling for decades — 67% from 2001 to 2018, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization.
“It’s just profoundly more successful than we thought it was going to be,” said Marcy Mistrett, the report’s author.
Hundreds of thousands of youth who would have been tried and perhaps imprisoned as adults have instead faced juvenile court judges as a result of the raise the age movement, according to The Sentencing Project, a strong supporter of the shift.
Mistrett said the biggest changes have come in states with criminal justice systems that long treated 16-year-olds as adults, including New York, Connecticut and North Carolina.
Since 2007, 11 states have raised the age of criminal responsibility to age 18 for all but the most serious crimes. Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin remain the outliers, treating 17-year-olds as adults when they are arrested, prosecuted and detained.
At a public hearing on juvenile justice held by lawmakers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Tuesday, a New York City official responsible for local Raise the Age efforts said despite challenges, the biggest fears were never realized. The city’s juvenile detention facilities remain under-capacity, holding 120 children in a city of 4 million children and 226,000 16- and 17-year-olds.
“It certainly hasn’t been without its challenges for everyone involved, but at the end of the day we are very, very proud of where we have come in New York City,” said Dana Kaplan from the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Kaplan added that the state’s 18-month timeline may have helped focus stakeholders on the complex task of reorienting the city’s five prosecutors’ offices, large police department and separate juvenile detention agency and probation department.
Unlike the adult criminal system, the juvenile system is by statute focused on education and rehabilitation. Since early this century, research has shown that brains don’t mature until people are in their mid-20s, and until then young people are more prone to poor decision-making, especially if they’ve lived through trauma.
Alexis Piquero, the chair of sociology at the University of Miami who has contributed to the growing body of research on adolescent development called raise the age policies “a great example of science-based policymaking,” and “one of the most significant recent juvenile justice reforms.”
States that raised the age to 18 have not had to build costly new juvenile facilities, The Sentencing Project report found, and states are actually saving money by closing their youth
The Sentencing Project stresses that Raise the Age did not eliminate persistent racial disparities throughout the juvenile justice system, with Black youth five times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated. The youth who do still end up in adult court, sometimes under statutes allowing “transfers” for certain crimes, are also disproportionately youth of color. Mistrett estimates there are still around 40,000 such young people.
“If we’ve figured out how to keep white children out of carceral settings, there’s no reason we can’t figure that out for Black and brown kids. That’s strictly about structural racism,” said Mistrett.
States that raised the age of criminal responsibility have adjusted their systems to divert kids from arrest and prosecution, improved programs for post-incarceration life and offered greater mental health services. They also released more youth from detention settings before trials and built up community programming to keep them from breaking the law in the first place.
In South Carolina and other states, the voices of young people have helped power the movement’s successes.
“At first I wasn’t heard,” said Tiraney Petty, an 18-year-old from South Carolina who is in the Air Force and planning to attend college. Petty worked with Spartanburg’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a mentoring and advocacy group that pushed for 17-year-olds to be treated like the minors they are under the eyes of the law. “But if you keep talking, it’s the only way to open their eyes.”