Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of probation for New York City, is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.
Nineteenth-century progressives legally invented much of what we now call “adolescence.” They created compulsory education, child labor laws and, in 1899, the world’s first juvenile court for youth. Though the age limit for juvenile court varies from state to state, in most jurisdictions the cut off is age 18.
Research in psychology and neurobiology confirms that young people’s brains are not fully formed even in their mid-20s.
The court emphasized rehabilitative, individualized treatment and, later, confidentiality protections so that the bad choices of children would not follow them forever. When incarcerated, youth would be held in separate facilities designed to reform, not punish. By 1925, 46 states and 16 countries had opened separate courts for youth.
While the juvenile court’s founders got a lot right, the choice of age 18 was arbitrary, based on the mores of the time. But young people today face a very different world. Completing school, obtaining employment and getting married — all of which correlate with reduced criminality — happen much later for todays’ youth.
What's more, research in psychology and neurobiology confirms that young people’s brains are not fully formed until in their mid-20s – much later than previously believed. Young adults are developmentally more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults, and are more prone to risk taking and influence by their peers. They think less about the future and are more volatile in emotionally charged settings.
With these discoveries in mind, I co-authored a report that recommends raising the age at which juveniles enter the adult court system to at least 21, with gradually diminishing protections that extend to age 25.
Though this would be a big change for many places in the country — each state determines at what age a juvenile is charged as an adult — special approaches to young adults are common outside of criminal justice. It is illegal to consume alcohol or purchase a handgun before age 21 and young people can't serve in Congress until age 25. Their auto insurance is more expensive and access to car rentals more limited under age 25, but on the plus side, youth can now stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26.
Our plan makes social and economic sense. After Connecticut raised the age children could be tried as adults from 16 to 17 and 18, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, juvenile crime levels plummeted and the number of young people in both Connecticut's juvenile facility and young adult prison dropped to record lows. This has prompted Dannel Malloy, the current governor, to seek to raise the age even further, to 21.
The science is sufficiently robust to encourage policy innovation here. Whether the age one must be tried as a juvenile is raised to 21, a third system for young adults is created or developmentally appropriate programs and policies are crafted, young adults are a population that warrants a special approach. They deserve protection from a lifetime stain for acts committed when not fully mature.