Rarely does a state legislature so quickly correct itself. In June, Rhode Island passed a law that sent all 17-year-old defendants straight to adult court. But youth advocates howled at the idea of treating minors as adults. Last week, the legislature overturned the law. May other states follow.
The lawmakers learned that lowering the age in which a youth enters the world of adult courts, sentences, jails, and prisons will not save the state money – as the law originally intended.
But those opposed to the law voiced concerns beyond the cost issue. Since the 1990s, when virtually every state in the country made it easier to try juveniles as adults, research about this practice has revealed dangers: higher percentages of repeat offenses (and more violent ones) than for comparable youths who went through the juvenile justice system with its support and rehabilitation services.
Studies show minors in adult facilities may experience more emotional distress, physical abuse, and suicide. Even if they come away with only probation, their convictions stand as roadblocks to jobs.
In Rhode Island, youth advocates argued successfully that the law has monetary and social costs.
Thankfully, some states are beginning to reexamine what can only be described as a craze to get tough on juvenile crime. It was encouraged by the conviction of five teenagers in the rape and beating of a New York Central Park jogger in 1989. The teens were deemed "superpredators," indicative of a new, more dangerous breed of roving, violent youths (their convictions were thrown out in 2002 after DNA evidence snared a serial rapist).
Some states responded with a blunt tool – simply lowering the age at which all youths enter the adult criminal justice system. Thirteen states try under-18 youths as adults, though Connecticut has decided to raise the juvenile cutoff age to 18 beginning in 2010.
Other changes allowed prosecutors, instead of judges in juvenile court, to decide whether to try a minor as an adult. Types of crime and the record of a suspect also pushed juveniles into the adult system.
The result was a 208 percent increase in the number of offenders under 18 in adult jails between 1990 and 2004. Every year, about 200,000 juveniles are prosecuted as adults – the majority of them for nonviolent offenses. In Wisconsin, for instance, all 17-year-olds end up in adult courts even though only 15 percent of them are charged with violent crimes (the state is now reviewing this).
These laws were intended to stop a youth crime wave that peaked in 1993 – and to lower the disproportionate participation of minors in serious violent crime. But states already had the discretion to direct special cases to adult court; these laws were an overreaction.
The Supreme Court gave important weight to this view when it overturned the death penalty in 2005 for youths under 18. The justices found a minor's "culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity." In other words, young people's thinking and judgment are not as developed as adults', and so the legal system should not treat them as adults.
There's a reason why the juvenile justice system is so named. Not that it's perfect. But states must get back to using it and improving it.