This piece originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.
Marc Schindler and Vincent Schiraldi
Published: November 17, 2015
"Connecticut raised the age of those tried in the juvenile justice system from 16 to 18 in 2007. Now, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed making the state the first to raise the age to 21, with special confidentiality protections for adults under 25. This is a watershed moment for the U.S., where thousands of youths under 18 are tried as adults annually.
Gov. Malloy's proposal is grounded in recent research in neurobiology and developmental psychology that already served as justification for moving more juveniles out of Connecticut's adult court and into a more developmentally appropriate system. Emerging research has found that the brain doesn't finish developing until the mid-20s and that young adults are more susceptible to peer pressure, less future-oriented and more volatile in emotionally charged settings. Studies show that 18- to 25-year-olds are more developmentally similar to adolescents than to mature adults. As the governor said, "teenagers are different from young adults. Young adults are different from those in mid-life."
Adolescence has become elongated compared with previous generations. Today, young people generally finish college, find jobs, get married and leave home later. These are milestones of growing up and desisting from delinquent behavior.
The justice system has shown that it can adjust to meet the needs of young adults. Before Connecticut raised the age for juveniles, some critics expressed concerns that the result would be overloaded courts and juvenile facilities and increased crime. Instead, Connecticut has seen record low numbers of youths in pretrial detention and at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, and the lowest percentage of youths under age 18 at the Manson Youth Institute, where youths tried as adults are housed.
Additionally, the number of youths ages 18 to 21 in Connecticut's adult prisons is at its lowest level in more than 25 years, down 51 percent over the past six years. Illinois experienced similar positive outcomes when it raised the age of those going through its juvenile justice system.
Changing the way the justice system deals with young adults has the potential to improve public safety. By not effectively applying what research tells us about how to address the unique needs of young adults — who account for a disproportionately large share of arrests — we end up with poor public safety outcomes. A Department of Justice study found that about three-quarters of under 25-year-olds released from prison are rearrested within three years, the highest recidivism rate of any age group.
In careful studies comparing youths with similar backgrounds and similar convictions, the more rehabilitative juvenile justice system was repeatedly found to have lower rearrest rates than the adult system. Just as Connecticut's move to raise the age to 18 was aided by overall system improvements, juvenile justice reform should be part of raising the age to 21. A robust continuum of individualized services and a commitment to use incarceration as a last resort will lower recidivism and improve outcomes, while saving taxpayer dollars.
Policy-makers beyond Connecticut are taking note. In September, the Harvard Kennedy School recommended that the age for entering the juvenile justice system be raised to 21 and that youths under age 25 receive developmentally appropriate treatment. Upon the report's release, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch convened an expert panel on appropriate responses to young adults going through the juvenile justice system and said, "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 ... (offering) a chance to consider new and innovative ways to augment our criminal justice approach." This month, the Council of State Governments issued a policy brief on 18- to 24-year-olds in the justice system, encouraging policy makers to "tailor supervision and services to address young adults' distinct needs."
With advances in research and knowledge about what works with young people, it is time for practice to catch up with science. Gov. Malloy should be applauded for his leadership in launching this national conversation. Other states should follow Connecticut's approach and engage in serious research-informed reforms of their policies that affect this critical group of young people."
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington. Vincent Schiraldi is senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School program in criminal justice. Both are former juvenile correctional administrators.