U.S. States Move To Start Treating 17-Year-Old Offenders As Juveniles, Not Adults Or Hardened Criminals In The Criminal Justice System

Chené Marshall was a 17-year-old with no prior criminal record, but when she got in a fight in high school she got prison time, and not a suspension. She was not aware that in the state of Louisiana, 17-year-olds were treated as adults by the justice system. She was arrested by police, indicted on battery charges and had bail set at $5,000. She was thrown into the Orleans Parish Prison, a violent facility with hardened criminals twice her age.

Juvenile Justice

“I had a fight on the first night…it’s called ‘testing your weight’ to see if you are scared or they can own you,” Chené said, recalling her jail time in 2011. Marshall spent three nights in the violent facility before her great-aunt bailed her out with a bondsman fee of $650.

According to the New York Times, most 17-year-olds in America are not allowed to buy cigarettes, vote, or even adopt a dog from a shelter, but yet are tried as adults rather than juveniles when they commit a crime. There are over nine states in America that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. North Carolina and New York go a step further, treating 16-year-olds as adults.

But now Louisiana, alongside some other states that try 17-year-olds as adults, are backtracking and are on the verge of increasing the cutoff age to 18. This movement has attracted bipartisan support with the argument that high imprisonment rates in America are largely due to the treatment of juveniles as adults when neurological evidence points to the fact that an adult brain is different from a young person’s brain. A bill to this effect was passed May 2 in the Louisiana Senate — dominated by Republicans — and has enjoyed a strong show of support from Democrat governor John Bel Edwards.

The potential of this bill in the state of Louisiana could change as many as 5,000 lives of 17-year-olds that are arrested annually, usually for misdemeanors that are non-violent. Additionally, under the auspices of the new law, juveniles will be provided with therapy and granted opportunities to complete their high school degrees so that do not get out and latch on to a life of hardened crime because they have nothing to fall back on.

However, the Louisiana juvenile system is already in dire straits because of a severe budget crisis. According to reports, if the bill actually does make it through it will enjoy a first phase of non-violent offenders making the shift in 2018, subsequently followed by a second phase in 2020. The option of movement for juveniles that commit severe crimes in adult courts still remains.

Juvenile Justice
In a bid to crack down on crime, many states began trying juveniles as adults in the 1990s. States like Connecticut and Illinois decreased the age from 18 to 16, whereas places like Mississippi, New Hampshire and Massachusetts brought it from 18 to 17.

Vincent Schiraldi, research fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, as well as a former justice official in Washington, D.C. and New York City, said the harowing experiences of young people in those states necessitated the change.

Officials in Vermont, Illinois, and Connecticut are thinking of pushing up the cutoff age to 21, a move that has been widely disputed in many quarters. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo also proposed increasing the age to 18, but a majority of the Senate comprised of Republicans have refuted the suggestion, saying it raises issues of safety and costs.

Chené Marshall, now 22, still leaves with her great-aunt because her criminal record has not been expunged. She says because of that, she has been turned down repeatedly for jobs, including as a security guard, postal worker, and superstore clerk.

[Image via Shutterstock/Brian A. Jackson]