Criminal Justice Reform

Sentencing Juveniles as Adults is Not Always The Best Policy

The issue of presumptively treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system has been discussed and debated in a number of states. Currently, 41 states presumptively treat 17-year-olds as juveniles. New York and North Carolina treat 16-year-olds presumptively as adults, while in the remaining states, 17-year-olds are presumptively treated as adults.

Certain states have laws that provide a mechanism for prosecuting juveniles as adults for certain violent crimes or sex offenses. Louisiana, for example, allows 14-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults for murder or first-degree rape upon a finding by a juvenile court judge that the offender cannot be rehabilitated by the state’s juvenile justice system. Public safety should always be the top priority, and when it comes to juvenile justice, ALEC members support alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-risk offenders, particularly those who are under the age of 18.

The ALEC model, Resolution to Treat 17-year-olds as Juveniles, supports presumptively treating 17-year-olds as juveniles. One of the major issues with current adult prison facilities is that they are not equipped to handle long-term rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. By exposing nonviolent, low-risk juvenile offenders to situations in which they may be victimized, juvenile offenders are denied any form of rehabilitation or educational opportunities that could help them become successful contributing members of society once they serve their sentence.

In Michigan, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that aims to reform the current law, which automatically tries any 17-year-old as an adult regardless of their crime. The R Street Institute published a policy study that addresses the ineffectiveness of the current Michigan law. According to their study, A Conservative Case To ‘Raise The Age’ In Michigan, since 2003 more than 20,000 minors have been tried and convicted as adults. While approximately 60 percent of these juveniles were convicted for nonviolent crimes, “58 percent of those who entered the system at age 17 had no prior juvenile criminal record.” Those juveniles convicted of nonviolent crimes would be better served by being tried as juveniles, rather than as adults.

According to an op-ed in the Detroit News by R Street policy analyst Nathan Leamer, juveniles incarcerated in the adult system are “34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a felony” than those who remain in the juvenile system. Leamer further opined that incarcerating nonviolent juvenile offenders within adult facilities is only laying the framework for a “training ground” of future criminals, increasing the number of offenders and the number of victims.

Raising the age furthers the likelihood of nonviolent juvenile offenders becoming functioning members of society who understand the results of their actions, and decreases their chances of recidivism.

According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, more than 250,000 juveniles are tried, sentenced and incarcerated in adult facilities every year. Adult prisons already have been experiencing significant overcrowding, with the majority of those incarcerated being nonviolent offenders. Taxpayers are spending, on average, $260 on U.S. prison facilities per capita, or a total of $39 billion a year. Granted, the per diem cost of incarcerating a juvenile offender is higher than an adult offender; however, adult offenders are generally incarcerated for a much longer period of time.

Incarcerating nonviolent juveniles in adult facilities does not increase individual accountability nor act as a deterrent for future juvenile crime. Taxpayer dollars could instead be redirected to help properly rehabilitate juveniles and allow them to become prosperous and functioning members of society through the juvenile justice system.

It might be wise for states to reassess the way juveniles are presumptively treated to ensure the punishment fits the crime. Efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent 17-year-olds being prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system would save states money without compromising public safety.


In Depth: Criminal Justice Reform

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reforms in the states. Since 2008, the ALEC task force on criminal justice reform, called the Justice Performance Project, has brought state legislators and stakeholders together to combat the trend of unforgiving and harsh criminal laws.

+ Criminal Justice Reform In Depth