Every State Agrees: 16-Year-Olds Are Better Served in the Youth Justice System

Posted July 10, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog everystateagrees 2017

Two states — New York and North Car­oli­na — recent­ly passed leg­is­la­tion to end the prac­tice of auto­mat­i­cal­ly pros­e­cut­ing all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Read about the Supreme Court Deci­sion that affirmed jus­tice sys­tems must treat youth dif­fer­ent­ly than adults

This means that every state in the nation now rec­og­nizes that 16-year-olds are more like­ly to suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tion to adult­hood if they are served by a jus­tice sys­tem designed for youth reha­bil­i­ta­tion rather than the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

  • In New York, leg­is­la­tion will include 16-year-olds in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem start­ing in Octo­ber 2018 and 17-year-olds one year lat­er. By default, mis­de­meanor cas­es will be heard in Fam­i­ly Court and felony cas­es will start in a new­ly-cre­at­ed Youth Part of the adult crim­i­nal court, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some felony cas­es trans­fer­ring to Fam­i­ly Court.
  • In North Car­oli­na, the state bud­get includ­ed pol­i­cy changes and fund­ing to keep 16- and 17-year-olds in juve­nile court. Start­ing in Decem­ber 2019, the state will no longer treat these teens as adults for all crimes.

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion believes that a jus­tice sys­tem should hold youth account­able in ways that rec­og­nize their capac­i­ty for change and that align with their devel­op­men­tal stage. With­in this sys­tem, all youth — regard­less of their pur­port­ed offense — should receive age-appro­pri­ate respons­es and, when appro­pri­ate, treatment.

The Foun­da­tion also believes that the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem can­not meet the devel­op­men­tal needs of youth. An individual’s brain, body, and emo­tions are high­ly dynam­ic and respon­sive to their envi­ron­ment until they reach their mid-20s, accord­ing to research. Thrust­ing ado­les­cents into an adult sys­tem is not mere­ly impru­dent — it expos­es them to an array of deep phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal harms.

Pros­e­cu­tion in adult crim­i­nal court also results in worse out­comes for youth, and try­ing ado­les­cents as adults increas­es their like­li­hood of com­mit­ting addi­tion­al crimes. Yet, five states — Geor­gia, Michi­gan, Mis­souri, Texas and Wis­con­sin — still auto­mat­i­cal­ly try 17-year-olds as adults. In addi­tion, states across the coun­try can still choose to trans­fer ado­les­cents to adult court.

While America’s juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem remains far from per­fect, espe­cial­ly giv­en the harsh, puni­tive con­di­tions in youth pris­ons across the nation, the promise of a dif­fer­ent sys­tem for young peo­ple can­not be real­ized if ado­les­cents are treat­ed like adults.

Read about oth­er states that kept their youth out of the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

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