Raising the Bar: State Trends in Keeping Youth out of Adult Court

Posted by Staci Sottile

Dec 12, 2017 1:10:00 PM

This report documents legislative victories as well as what is left to be done in keeping youth out of adult court

Twelve years ago, the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) set out to get young people removed from the adult justice system. In an effort to achieve that goal, since 2011, it has issued periodically a State Trends Report documenting legislative victories and what’s left to be done.

In that time, a lot has changed. Although, too much has stayed the same. The CFYJ laid out its findings in the recently released “Raising the Bar: State Trends in Keeping Youth Out of Adult Courts (2015-2017).

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According to the report, in 2005, 250,000 youth were prosecuted in adult court. Since then, that number has dropped to 90,900. What accounts for this dramatic decrease? State after state has raised the age at which someone is automatically excluded from juvenile court. In 2005, 14 states treated 16-year-olds as adults. Nine years later, five states raised the age. They were followed by more. By 2020, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina and New York will have joined the ranks.

“These legislative victories are not just good for youth, but they set historic precedent in our country,” says Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the CFYJ. “Once New York and North Carolina fully implement their laws, it will be the first time since the creation of the juvenile court in the United States that 16-year olds are not automatically treated as adults simply because of their age. That is huge, and it will change the lives of thousands of kids.”

Youth in adult lockups

The good numbers are not limited to raising the age. It is important to get kids out of adult prisons. The number of young people committing suicide when locked up with older inmates is alarming. So the numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics are heartening. Its December 31 one-day count of youth in adult prisons showed that number has dropped 65 percent from 2,779 in 2009 to 993 in 2015. This statistic can be explained by nine states and the District of Columbia moving to lower the number of adolescents in adult facilities and removing some of those already incarcerated. Even better, Oregon and New York out and out banned youth being put in with adults as of 2018.

Juvenile court judges with more options

Another push is for increasing the power of juvenile-court judges to decide if a young person should be transferred into the adult system. As is, 28 states automatically send youth into adult court if they are accused of having committed specific offenses. In some states, this means 8-, 10- and 12-year-old children can face adult prosecution. The good news is from 2015-2017, 19 states and the District of Columbia have raised the age at which a young person can be sent into the adult system. They have also deleted some of the offenses that lead to a transfer.

“While states have made significant progress, there is still a lot of work to do,” said Jeree Thomas, CFYJ policy director and the report’s author. “There are still five states that automatically treat all 17-year olds as adults, we still have young people suffering physical and sexual trauma in adult jails and prisons, and while we are seeing numbers decline, we are also seeing racial disparities increase. The fight for these young people’s future is far from over.”

Legislative advances should be applauded. However, here’s a suggestion. Keep at-risk kids out of the system in the first place or keep them from re-entering by using all the resources available—family, school, community. 

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Multisystemic Therapy (MST) has been proven to do just that. MST provides families and youth the necessary skills to keep adolescents out of placement, safely at home, in school, with no new arrests. These outcomes support keeping these young people out of the adult justice system.

Therefore, it isn’t enough to just raise the age. We must also work together to champion effective treatment programs like MST as a better solution. Crucial to this is educating key participants such as legislators, court systems, funders, and mental health professionals. Consider taking a moment to write to your legislator about the benefits of using evidence-based practices

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform