More Steps Are Needed To Fix Our Justice System — Especially For Young Offenders [Opinion]

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The U.S. federal justice system is getting some much-needed changes.

With the adoption of a bipartisan bill called the First Step Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law earlier this month, thousands of offenders in prisons across the country will be given the opportunity for early release from their sentences, per reporting from Vox.

This law garnered the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, which is a rare accomplishment these days in Washington. But while this law goes a long way toward correcting some wrongs in our justice system, much more work is needed — especially when it comes to younger criminals.

When it comes to areas involving reasoning and self-control, the human brain isn’t developed until age 25, reporting from Newsweek points out. Yet, young offenders, including those who commit violent criminal acts, can be charged as adults at very young ages — 13 states in the U.S. don’t even have minimum age guidelines for who can be charged as an adult, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

This is problematic because it means that children who do not have fully developed brains are being punished in ways that won’t help them when they’re eventually released. Recidivism is a highly-likely outcome of standard adult-oriented punishments for teenagers.

There are other ways in which we must consider rehabilitating young offenders that statehouses across the country and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., must take into consideration.

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Restorative justice programs should be studied and implemented in communities across the country. These programs encourage interactions between the offender and their victims, allowing the young criminal to fully understand how their actions have consequences outside of their own life. Programs like these also frequently allow the offender to “repair” the harm that they did.

Restorative justice also has positive benefits for victims, according to research compiled by the University of Wisconsin. One study demonstrated, for instance, that victims reported a greater level of satisfaction when they took part in restorative justice programs versus the levels that were reported under conventional means of punishment.

Other options deserve consideration, including raising, not lowering, the age at which individuals are considered juvenile offenders. In Germany, “juvenile” crimes include offenders who are as old as age 21, according to reporting from Deutsche Welle. When judges rule on those cases, they’re given more leeway to decide how they want to administer justice, versus how adult criminals are treated (generally with jail/prison terms or fines).

The result of such flexibility is something every nation across the world should aspire for: a lower rate of recidivism for their young offenders.

What works in Germany might not work in America, of course, but an openness toward restorative justice and other programs designed to take into consideration the developing mind are necessary if we’re going to continue to make reforms to our own justice system.

Young people must not be treated in the same way we treat older criminals. Hopefully, a bipartisan consensus of lawmakers can agree to take steps to address these issues as well.