If recent legislative progress is any indication, two more states—South Carolina and Louisiana—are poised to “raise the age” at which criminal cases involving juvenile offenders could be tried in the adult system.
Currently, 41 states and the District of Columbia maintain that their juvenile courts have jurisdiction to hear most cases involving 17-year-old offenders—exceptions are usually allowed in cases involving violence or other serious crimes—while in the other nine states, the upper limit for jurisdiction is sixteen. Bills moving through South Carolina and Louisiana’s legislatures right now would align those states with the policies of the former.
In South Carolina, Senate Bill 916 just passed third reading in the House yesterday, and now returns to the Senate with amendments for concurrence. In Louisiana, Senate Bill 324 overwhelmingly cleared a floor vote on Monday by 33-4, and now heads to the House for consideration.
Much of the justification for treating 17-year-olds as juveniles when adjudicating their cases stems from mounting scientific evidence that juveniles respond to rehabilitation efforts far differently than do adults. Research into the human brain in particular has shown that the portion which confers a person’s judgement, inhibition, and self-control—found in the frontal lobe—is also the portion that develops last: not until a person is well into their early to mid-20’s. Because of this, not only are they limited in their ability to exercise restraint and fully understand concepts of right and wrong, they also require different approaches in disciplining them.
Additionally, a recent report jointly published by the MacIver Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation detailing Wisconsin’s system explains that a majority of 17 year old offenders belong in the juvenile justice system—one that is weighted more towards rehabilitation and is better positioned to handle the aforementioned realities concerning juveniles:
The juvenile justice system is better equipped to handle the nuanced cases that juveniles often present, through a process that assesses youth individually, identifies intervention and accountability needs, and provides redirective services. Parents and schools play a significant role in the juvenile system, whereas the adult system does not require that parents are notified if their 17-year-old is arrested. The experience of other states has shown that returning 17-year-old first-time nonviolent offenders to the purview of the juvenile court allows both the adult and juvenile courts to process the cases they are best equipped to handle.
Trying 17-year old’s as juveniles, in a court system that emphasizes rehabilitation over more punitive measures, isn’t to say that there ought not to be consequences for their illegality. It is to say, however, that harboring them among older, and often times, more hardened offenders has its own downsides—as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan explain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The research and data are clear: adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around. Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape or assault, and to commit suicide. They are also likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.
SB 324 in Louisiana has been referred to the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice, while S. 916 in South Carolina could be heard in the Senate again as early as Wednesday.