Fewer juvenile offenders are being sent to adult courts as a shift works its way into the American justice system, The Associated Press reports.
The percentage of juvenile offenders across the county referred to adult court dropped from 8% in 2010 to 2% in 2019 and 1% in 2020, according to data compiled by the FBI.
“This has meant second chances for untold thousands of youths,” the June 6 AP story commented.
The story cited the 2015 case of David Harrington, who spent a harrowing eight months of his teenage years at a jail in Philadelphia, fighting a charge for robbery.
Only 16 at the time, the system charged him as an adult, but a judge sent his case down to juvenile court. A sentence of house arrest and probation allowed him to finish high school.
“I think if I would have stayed in the adult system, I would have came home probably a little worse,” said Harrington, now 24. “I would have came home listening to the ways on how to get better at … certain illegal things, and I would have came home and been doing nonsense.”
AP writer David Collins wrote that community programs, counseling, peer mediation, and similar services for teenagers have increasingly replaced adult prison sentences. Nationwide, the number of children prosecuted as adults fell to 53,000 in 2019 from an estimated 250,000 in the early 2000s, reported the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
These statistics correspond with a general decrease in crime, including a 58% drop in youth arrests between 2010 and 2019, the story noted.
Many in law enforcement have supported such reforms and several states have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18. Others maintain the changes go too far.
The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for minimal imprisonment, said that only Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin prosecute 17-year-olds in adult courts.
Collins said that the “raise the age” movement has shown scientifically that teenage brains have not fully developed key decision-making functions. Other research has shown that children serving sentences in adult institutions experience risk of physical and psychological harm, which can lead to more criminal behavior.
“We see across the board for young folks, regardless of what they may be charged with, that what works is community-based intervention, what works is connecting young folks with people in their own communities, letting communities lead reform efforts,” said Naomi Smoot Evans, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington nonprofit that works to keep children from involvement with courts.
Disagreeing is Giovanni Circo, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven. His research showed no correlation between raising the age of adult criminal liability to 18 and crime increases.
“When we look at more widespread impacts of these sort of policies, we just don’t find any evidence that it has any impact on overall crime rates,” Circo said.
Harrington now works for the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, helping teenagers charged as adults.
“You’d rather be at a juvenile facility getting the proper care and treatment there,” he said, calling the juvenile system “better because you’re able to go home and be with your family.”