Louisiana Has it Right: A 17-Year-Old Should Not Be Automatically Put into Adult Justice System

Should a 17-year-old kid be automatically tried as an adult if he or she commits a crime? The answer was yes in nine states, before Louisiana’s lawmakers recently changed course. The legislature passed and the governor signed a law raising the age at which youth are automatically tried as adults.

While the law would still allow 17-year-olds to be charged as adults under some circumstances, the transfer of youth — more than 90 percent of whom are convicted of non-violent offenses — would no longer be automatic. It’s a significant reform for the Pelican State. The practice of adjudicating and punishing youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system is not only harmful to those being put in the systems, but runs counter to best crime control practices, making us all less safe.

In general, we recognize that youth differ from adults. Research on brain development has shown that adolescents are more likely to act impulsively and more easily influenced by peer pressure. And so we treat them differently: We don’t let them vote, consume alcohol, get tattoos, or even to go see an “R” rated move without the express permission of a parent or guardian. However when it comes crime, nearly every state allows them to be treated as fully culpable adults under certain circumstances. In Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Missouri, 17-year olds are automatically placed in the adult system. In New York and North Carolina, youth are automatically prosecuted as adults at age 16.

It has been well documented that youth do not fare well in the adult justice system. Youth detained in adult prisons and jails are 36 percent more likely to commit suicide than youth incarcerated in juvenile facilities. And a 2009 report by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission concluded that youth incarcerated in adult prisons and jails were likely highest at-risk for sexual abuse while in confinement. Often, in an effort to try to prevent these assaults, youth are placed in “protective custody” in a segregation or solitary confinement unit. The impact of prolonged segregation, a practice that has been shown to cause mental health deterioration in even healthy adults, is particularly damaging on young developing brains. So much so that President Obama issued an executive order earlier this year to ban the practice in federal facilities.

Placing youth in the adult system can also have long-term implications for their future success. As educational programming in adult facilities is, understandably, primarily geared towards adults, incarcerated youth are often unable to access the classes they need to earn their diploma or GED. This puts them at a greater risk of falling behind academically and increases their likelihood of dropping out. And even for those that do graduate, their opportunities post-incarceration are severely stymied by their conviction. They suffer collateral consequences that can prevent them from obtaining employment, further educational opportunities, and from receiving student financial aid.

Punishing youth as adults also negatively impacts public safety. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rather than deter further crime, youth previously tried as adults are approximately 34 percent more likely to recidivate than youth kept in the juvenile system.

Much has been learned over the last few decades about how best to keep our communities safe. We now know that the most punitive approach may not be the most effective one, and it has unintended reverberations that last a lifetime. By passing this law, Louisiana has made significant progress in making its criminal justice system more humane for youth under 18 while also better protecting public safety. The remaining eight states should follow Louisiana’s lead.