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Changes Being Made to Juvenile Sentencing Laws in Many States

Throughout the 1990s, many states revamped their juvenile criminal laws to make it easier for judges to sentence children to adult prison. This was obviously done in an effort to appear “tough on crime” after a number of high-profile and sensational juvenile-offender cases had caused a media and public outcry. What many suspected at the time, however, and what has been proven to be true over time, is that this approach has been a poor solution to a complex problem.

The pendulum is now beginning to swing the other way. A report by the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) details the changes occurring across the nation, as states change the way children are handled in the criminal justice system.

Today, fifteen states have backed away from the draconian sentencing of juveniles. Two factors appear behind this change in thinking. The first, not surprisingly, is money. Sentencing juveniles to adult jail and prison costs more than placing them in the juvenile system.

According to a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, returning youth to juvenile court jurisdiction will result in a $3 savings benefit for every $1 spent.

According to the Pew Center on the States, state correctional costs quadrupled over the past two decades and now top $50 billion a year, consuming one in every 15 general fund dollars. With crushing deficits hitting most state budgets, every possible means of saving money must be explored.

Kids Are Different

The second factor is that children really are different. Research has demonstrated that the brains of children are substantively different from those of adults and undeveloped in important ways. Placing children in the adult prison system, where they receive no education, virtually no rehabilitative assistance and become socialized by adult inmates ultimately causes far more problems than it solves.

The CFYJ study notes: “What science tells us is that the brain architecture is constructed through a process that starts before birth and continues into adulthood. During adolescence, the brain undergoes dramatic changes to the structure and function of the brain impacting the way youth process and react to information.”

Adult prison is not the best way to “impact” those brains.

More Expensive In All Ways

Tied to the massive increase in correctional costs, the effect of sentencing children to the adult prison system leads to the development of more, not fewer, career criminals. Over 200,000 children are sentenced to the adult system every year. The report cites a study that shows each high-risk youth diverted from a life of crime saves society nearly $5.7 million in costs over a lifetime.

Some states have a great deal of work to do; Florida, during the 1990s sent nearly as many children to the adult system (7,000) as the entire rest of the country combined. Even Texas passed legislation to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences.

Massachusetts currently places all 17 year-olds in the adult system. A pending bill in the legislature would change that and raise juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.

Improvements Suggested for the Juvenile System

Given the ill effects of adult prison on children and the increasing costs of doing so, the report urges policymakers to:

  • Remove all youth from adult jails and prisons in their state or local jurisdiction.
  • Raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to at least age 18.
  • Reform juvenile transfer laws to keep youth in the juvenile justice system.
  • Remove mandatory minimum sentences for youth convicted in the adult justice system.
  • Instituting these changes will make the system more efficient, less costly, and ultimately lead us to a safer society.
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