What’s in a Number? Age Considerations in Justice Decisions

Research shows that adolescents have a high propensity for engaging in risk taking activities given the significant changes in neurology, biology, and other developmental issues (e.g., social; cultural; familial) they experience. Specifically related to decision-making, science shows the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain is underdeveloped until a young person is well into their 20’s.  With these findings in mind, how should this influence the way we think about key juvenile justice policies and practices like the age of juvenile jurisdiction?

While developmental science has guided juvenile justice policies, it cannot be the only factor in determining the age at which young people are transferred to adult courts. Yet, the Supreme Court has used developmental science to guide its opinions in cases (e.g., Miller v. Alabama). Moreover, the committee that prepared the Reforming Juvenile Justice A Developmental Approach report argues for two guiding principles related to age of transfer policies including: proportionality and individualization (p. 134). They also argue for the importance of keeping the jurisdictions goals of crime prevention in the forefront. More specifically:

  • Proportionality is the notion that a lower threshold for punishment for adolescents should be considered as compared to adults and young people should be offered alternatives to confinement
  • Individualization suggests that decisions about transferring youth to adult courts should be made based on multiple factors and not just arbitrary age limits. This may include type and severity of the law violation and other contextual factors
  • Crime prevention strategies should examine the policies and programs that support their goals. Studies have shown that confining young people does not prevent future re-offending, and in fact, can be counterproductive to crime prevention efforts. This is particularly true regarding confining young people in adult facilities given the opposing aspects for healthy adolescent development (e.g., isolation; possible victimization; potentially greater access to negative role models/adults; delays in academic progress)

Most states have the age for juvenile jurisdiction through 17 years old. However, five states have it set at 16 years old, and two at 15 years old. All states have transfer laws that require or provide discretion for making a determination to transfer a young person to adult courts. These can be complicated systems for decision-making, but proportionality, individualization, and the goals of crime prevention are likely to produce the best outcomes for youth, families, and communities.

Today some states, like Connecticut, are debating increasing the age of transfer to adult court to 21 years old. From an adolescent development perspective, this is a promising approach. The MacArthur Foundation recently released a brief that indicates that while research is limited, there appears to be differences in brain development for youth in the age group of 18 to 21 as compared to their younger or older counterparts. While the report acknowledges further research is needed, the brief recommends that justice policies and programs consider the unique developmental aspects of young people between the ages of 18-21 years old.

The Justice Policy Institute also recently released a report that examined state specific results of raising the age, which shows improved outcomes for youth, families, and state budgets.  For example, several states prepared fiscal notes that projected costs would increase if age of transfer was raised. However, states like Illinois, Connecticut and New Hampshire showed negligible fiscal increases and cost savings.  While North Carolina and New York are the only two states that have the age of transfer at 15 years old, lawmakers continue to debate the issues including the economic benefits. In fact, supporters of North Carolina’s House Bill 280 are communicating cost-benefit results that show state savings of $7 (actual dollars) to $50 (actual dollars and benefits to youth) million dollars per year.

Science and experience tell us that providing youth with positive, pro-social environments that encourage development of critical thinking through participation in healthy adult and peer relationships, fair and consistent boundaries, education, and gender and culturally responsive activities offers greater value to youth, families, and crime prevention efforts.

Reclaiming Futures sites work every day to ensure that young people are screened, assessed and services and supports are offered based on the youth and families individual needs. If youth become involved in the justice system, it makes sense that our responses, including what jurisdiction for which they are involved, are developmentally appropriate and grounded in evidence-based practices.

Updated: February 08 2018