Illinois, Connecticut Propose Bills to Raise the Age to 21
For some time, research on young adults’ brain development has overwhelmingly agreed that young people’s ability to assess risk and clearly judge the consequences of their actions is not fully developed until their mid-20s. This research has led many youth justice advocates to challenge the idea that young adults should be held accountable for their actions in adult court—especially given the serious and often lifelong consequences associated with an adult criminal record. Until recently, however, the idea that young adults as old as 21 might be processed in youth courts seemed to many a far-fetched proposition; advocates in New York and North Carolina are still campaigning to raise the age from 16 to 17.
Now, states like Illinois, Connecticut, and Vermont are leading the way with campaigns to bring 18, 19, and 20-year olds under the jurisdiction of youth courts. “We raised the age from 17 to 18 over a period of several years,” said Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI) in Illinois, an NJJN member. “Once we got to 18, the 17-year-olds came over [to the youth system] so smoothly that we felt it was important to think, well, what about the 18- and 19-year olds?”
“The most shocking thing we looked at was the misdemeanor cases in Cook County jail – one of the largest jails in the world. In 2013, out of nearly 10,000 inmates, 4,011 admissions were 18-21 years old and charged with misdemeanors. The majority stayed only a few days, but were left with the trauma and permanent record of the jail time. The figure now is lower (2,566 in 2015), but is still overwhelmingly disproportionate with 90 percent Black/Latino. So that’s what we’re focusing on: the disproportionate use of jail time for young adults for very minor offenses.”
So far, two bills have been filed at the suggestion of JJI: H.B. 6191 and H.B. 6308. The former would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21 regardless of offense, while the latter applies only to young adults charged with misdemeanors.
While campaigns to raise the age, including Illinois’, struggled with opposition when it came to 17-year olds, the success of that initiative has, according to Clarke, created a climate more open to these reforms. “I’ve been amazed at the lack of pushback on this issue, honestly,” Clarke said.
“We had horrible opposition when we raised the age by one year [to 18]. This has been nothing like that. People do realize that the jurisdictional boundaries can be safely changed, and want to find the best and most effective approach to young adults.”
Advocates in Connecticut have their sights set on similar reforms; among other proposals, S.B. 18 would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21, outlining a plan to bring 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds into the youth system over the next four years. “S.B. 18 sets the framework with that phase-in timing,” said Lara Herscovitch of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA), an NJJN member that has testified in favor of the bill. “It charges the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC), on which we sit, with figuring out the details of implementation, which is what happened the last time we raised the age.”
The bill’s future is unclear – the state of Connecticut currently faces a nearly billion-dollar deficit. Still, said Herscovitch, “The leadership of the governor and his commitment to justice reform is extraordinary. Luckily, our leaders know that investing a little money in the short term goes a very long way in the medium and long run.”
“They’re completely overdue,” said Herscovitch of the proposed reforms. “We’re giving these kids a second chance and finally letting our policies catch up with our knowledge about the developing brain. It’s sad that this is considered cutting edge; it shouldn’t be. Doing the right thing by investing in human capital shouldn’t be new and exciting, it should be standard practice. But yes, this is an exciting moment for continuing the momentum for justice reform in Connecticut.”
S.B. 18 has been introduced, and had a public hearing in the judiciary committee on March 23, 2016. A senate vote has not yet been scheduled.