Since officials in Cook County, Illinois established the nation’s first juvenile courts 117 years ago, efforts to deal with children in trouble with the law have taken dozens of forms. Some have been too harsh; others too lenient.
With juvenile crime near record lows, state budgets tight and state legislatures in session across the country, it’s time to consider reforms to our juvenile justice system that move it further in the direction of treating children like children. It’s a policy that should appeal to those across the political spectrum. While stories of school shootings and other horrific incidents cause understandable shock and dismay, the reality is that today’s youth are better behaved than those of previous generations. They are in trouble with the police less frequently, have lower rates of drug use, drink less, complete high school at higher rates and even smoke less than did members of the generation now in the prime childbearing years of 25 to 35. Even the mass shootings themselves, despite the media frenzy over them, actually aren’t happening any more frequently than they did in the past, based on the best available evidence.
In this context, laws that treat children like adults need serious review. There certainly are cases where those under age 18 commit truly serious crimes that might deserve adult punishment. The two of us — one a progressive and the other a conservative — might disagree on precisely what those punishments should be. But we do agree that current laws allowing children to be tried in adult criminal courts and sentenced to prison have gone too far.
Currently, seven states consider all arrested 17-year-olds to be adults, while two (New York and North Carolina) treat every alleged offender over age 16 as an adult. The result is that minors who can’t vote, sign most contracts, buy tobacco or, in some places, even get an unrestricted driver’s license could, nonetheless, end up with a permanent criminal record or even time in an adult jail, even for infractions as minor as a schoolyard tussle.
All 50 states have laws that allow for adult charges to be filed against children under some circumstances. More than half make adult charges mandatory for certain categories and classes of crimes, while 15 states grant prosecutors discretion to file adult charges without any oversight from a judge.
As part of this year’s legislative sessions, lawmakers in New York, Louisiana, South Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan are giving serious consideration to proposed reforms that would raise the age for adult jurisdiction. In Florida and California, legislators are considering whether to limits prosecutors’ discretion to file adult charges. The proposals differ and generally respond to specific circumstances in the individual states, but they all move in the direction of treating children more like children.
Ultimately, that commonsense policy should earn support from both the political left and the political right. The vast majority of 16- and 17-year-old alleged offenders are arrested for low-level crimes. Most have no prior contact with the criminal-justice system and end up receiving diversion to community service anyway. This is precisely the population who would benefit most from the protections offered by the juvenile court system.
While juvenile detention centers (which focus on rehabilitation and provide more education and therapy than adult prisons) do have a higher per-detainee cost than adult facilities, other costs more than cancel out the difference. A 2012 analysis from the University of Texas — one of the most comprehensive studies of the costs of juvenile and adult prisons — found that instituting appropriate changes to age-of-responsibility laws could save the Lone Star state about $90 million a year. Connecticut and Illinois also have seen significant taxpayer savings from the right reforms.
These reforms also help improve public safety. Research has shown that youth prosecuted as adults end up reoffending about one-third more often than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. They also tend to commit more serious offenses. Most states allow police to track particularly severe juvenile offenses, but such information is rarely accessible on the public Internet. As a result, experience with the juvenile justice system doesn’t impose the kind of lifelong taboo that accompanies an adult criminal record. This, in turn, makes it easier for people who strayed from the law as children to become productive adult citizens.
All too often, America treats youth who get into trouble with the law just like mini-adults. This does no good. Juvenile justice reform should be a priority on which left and right can agree.
• Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington. Marcy Mistrett is the CEO at the Campaign for Youth Justice.