Why Connecticut may try 21-year-olds as juveniles

Connecticut governor proposes extending protections of the juvenile justice system to include offenders as old as 21 and, in some cases, 25.

Dave Collins/AP/File
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (front r.) discusses a decrease over the previous year in violent crime in the state, Sept. 28, 2015, in Middletown, Conn. Malloy is joined Dora Schriro (l.) commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, and Col. Brian Meraviglia of the Connecticut State Police.

When the Connecticut legislature voted to raise the age of those eligible to be tried in its juvenile justice system from 16 to 18 in 2007, there was widespread skepticism. 

Police chiefs and judicial officials in the state expressed concerns that the measures would overburden the juvenile justice system and cost the state $40 million a year. In the eight years since the age was raised, Connecticut has seen its juvenile crime rate and juvenile incarceration rate decrease significantly – and at a much lower cost than projected.

The state now wants to go even further, as Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) urges raising the age of the juvenile justice system's jurisdiction from 18 to 21. He has also proposed reforms aimed at young adults – up to age 25 – that would give some juvenile system protections, such as confidentiality and the opportunity to have their records expunged, to young adults who commit less-serious offenses.

In an address at a University of Connecticut School of Law symposium in early November, Governor Malloy said he wants to "begin a statewide conversation" around the issue, and experts say the conversation could go nationwide.

"Age, within our laws and within the criminal justice system, is largely arbitrary," he added. "You can commit a nonviolent offense at 17 without a criminal record, but if you're 18 and you commit the same crime, it lasts a lifetime."

This "Raise the Age" movement has been gaining momentum around the country, fueled by new scientific research suggesting that current juvenile and adult justice systems don't properly reflect the modern path from adolescence to adulthood. 

The first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Ill., in 1899. It was based on the idea that children were less developed than adults and more in need of rehabilitation than punishment. Similar courts flourished around the country in the first half of the 20th century.

This approach has been validated by modern science, with disciplines from social psychology to neurobiology finding adolescents generally more prone to risky behavior, vulnerable to peer pressure, and likely to be volatile in emotionally charged settings. 

There is now growing social and scientific evidence that adolescence is elongated compared with previous generations, which juvenile justice experts say bolsters the argument that the juvenile justice system should, as Malloy is proposing, be expanded to include young adults.

Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School program in criminal justice and a former juvenile correctional administrator in Washington, D.C., says this prolonged modern adolescence can impact criminal behavior.

Young people finish college, find jobs, get married, and leave home much later than previous generations – all milestones associated with a reduced likelihood of criminal activity that are occurring later in life. And recent scientific research shows that the human mind doesn't reach full maturity until at least the mid-20s.

In this sense, says Mr. Schiraldi – who co-wrote an op-ed in support of Malloy's proposal for the Hartford Courant – Connecticut is seeking to have its legal system mirror the social and psychological development of its citizens.

"It's a gradual entrance into full adulthood in the legal system, the way sociologists, psychologists, and neural biologists believe people mature" in real life, he adds. "They [could] enter a court that’s more individualized, more rehabilitative, and less likely to stain their entire life from mistakes they made when they're not fully mature." 

By extending some aspects of the juvenile system to low-level offenders as old as 25 – such as confidentiality and expunging records – more of them could be diverted from an adult criminal justice system that may only make them more likely to re-offend.

A US Department of Justice study, for example, found that 78 percent of under 25-year-olds released from prison are rearrested within three years.

"Mixing young people with adults gives them role models, but not the role models we want them to have, so separating them is not just good for the system, but it could be helpful to the young people as well," says Schiraldi.

But challenges remain. Malloy's proposal would divert thousands of additional cases to the juvenile system – 11,000 people in that age bracket were arrested in Connecticut last year, the Connecticut Mirror reported – so an incremental approach to phasing in the program might be needed.

"There's an implementation concern," says Josh Gupta-Kagan, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. "The system has to have the resources to do it, you can’t keep the budget line flat and say, 'You have to handle 1,000 or 2,000 more cases.' "

When Connecticut first raised the age for its juvenile justice system, it took a staggered approach, raising the age from 16 to 18 over two years. It is an approach Schiraldi thinks should be repeated this time around.

"There are implementation issues at every stage of this," he says. "I don't consider them reasons not to do it, rather a reason to do it carefully."

If Malloy's proposal is adopted, and is successful, experts believe it could convince other states to follow suit.

Eight states allow 17-year-olds to be tried as adults, and in New York and North Carolina 16-year-olds can be tried as adults, according to the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI). An estimated 250,000 teens are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year in the US, mostly for nonviolent offenses, the Campaign for Youth Justice reported.

Some states are already following Connecticut's lead, including Illinois. A series of bills passed by the state legislature from 2009 through 2013 raised the age limit of the juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18. Next year, the state is going to consider raising it higher, says Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of the JJI. 

In a September panel discussion, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the new research indicates that "we may have a significant opportunity, even after the teenage years, to exert a positive influence and reduce future criminality through appropriate interventions."

Connecticut, as a national leader in juvenile justice reform, could soon be in a position to test these theories.

"I think this is an area that’s going to get looked at going forward," says Professor Gupta-Kagan. "Hopefully Connecticut can be a nice model and pull other states up with them."

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