The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed
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States move to limit youth in adult prisons, jails

Fifteen states have enacted legislation over the last five years limiting the number of youth placed in adult jails and prisons, according to a report authored by Campaign for Youth Justice researcher Neelum Arya.

The report, State Trends: Legislative Victories from 2005 to 2010,” examines 27 pieces of state legislation passed between 2005 and 2010. It found that:

  • Four states (Colorado, Maine, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) have passed laws limiting the ability to house youth in adult jails and prisons.
  • Three states (Connecticut, Illinois, and Mississippi) have expanded their juvenile court jurisdiction so that older youth who previously would be automatically tried as adults are not prosecuted in adult criminal court.
  • Ten states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, and Washington) have changed their transfer laws, making it more likely that youth will stay in the juvenile justice system.
  • Four states (Colorado, Georgia, Texas, and Washington) have changed their mandatory-minimum sentencing laws to take into account the developmental differences between youth and adults.

“State policymakers are beginning to understand the research that kids are not adults and need educational and rehabilitative services,” said Arya.

Colorado and Texas, for example, banned juvenile life-without-parole sentences and Washington eliminated the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to juveniles tried as adults, the report said. 

Maine passed a law in 2008 requiring that youth under 16 who receive adult sentences be housed in a juvenile institution until they turn 18, and Connecticut raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18.

In 2010, Mississippi changed a law requiring that all 17-year-olds charged with a felony be tried in the adult system. The new law requires that juveniles charged with felonies, including arson, robbery, drug offenses and child abuse, remain under the original jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. 

Another nine states are pursuing similar policy changes, the report said. The changes mark a reversal of some of the harsh laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, when many states made it easier for youth to be prosecuted in adult courts.