It's time for criminal justice reform to focus on young adults
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Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has emerged as a leader in criminal justice reform.

He has spearheaded initiatives to reclassify most drug offenses as misdemeanors, opened up reintegration centers for inmates prior to release, and enacted bail reform. Since taking office in 2011, the state’s prison population has declined from 18,021 to 14,451. In 2015, Connecticut experienced the second largest drop in violent crime per state, even as crime increased nationally.  

But Malloy’s most ambitious goal still eludes him. Last year, the governor proposed incorporating young adults under the age of 21 into the juvenile justice system. Serious offenders could still be prosecuted as adults. Unfortunately, despite a renewed push earlier this year, the initiative remains stalled in the General Assembly.

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The impetus for this idea is the successful reforms made to the juvenile justice system. In 2007, legislation was passed raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18. As with the current proposal, there were concerns that this would overburden the juvenile system and increase expenses. Instead, Connecticut expanded the use of community based programs as an alternative to confinement, which reduced both costs and recidivism. Other states have achieved success with similar reform measures.

Young adults aged 18-to-24 constitute 10 percent of the population but 30 percent of arrests. A disproportionate number of arrests are minorities. Incarceration disrupts families and criminal records drastically reduce employment and education opportunities. Prison exposes young inmates to other convicts and increases the risk of recidivism for less serious offenders.

Research shows that brain development continues until the mid-twenties. For youthful offenders, immaturity and impulsiveness often explain poor decision-making. In addition, the emergence of substance abuse and mental illness are risk factors prevalent to young adulthood. According to the “age-crime curve,” the propensity for committing crime peaks during the late teens before declining in the twenties.

The point is not to excuse bad behavior, but to emphasize the potential for rehabilitation. Critics charge that rehabilitation is “soft” on crime and expensive. But according to one study, 84 percent of young adults released from prison were rearrested within five years. Recidivism means more crime. In contrast, studies find that youths adjudicated in the juvenile system are significantly less likely to be re-arrested than those tried as adults.

Lower recidivism rates and the reduced use of confinement for juvenile offenders have resulted in cost savings. For example, it is estimated that special treatment courts for juvenile drug offenders save approximately $3,000 to $13,000 per individual. Reform allowed Connecticut to spend $2 million less on juvenile programs during the 2011-2012 fiscal year then it had ten years earlier. Texas saved over $200 million after investing in community based diversion programs.

According to a Harvard study, all but seven European countries have special provisions for prosecuting or sentencing young adults. In Germany a majority of young adult offenders are dealt with in the juvenile system. In the Netherlands all offenders up to age 23 are eligible for juvenile jurisdiction. And Japanese law provides that all persons under age twenty are minors.      

Changes are starting to occur on how young adults are treated in the United States. California passed legislation allowing several counties to launch a pilot program for nonviolent young adults to use the rehabilitation and educational services of the juvenile system. Vermont passed legislation, scheduled to take effect in 2018, extending Youthful Offender Status up to age twenty-two allowing for the possibility of rehabilitation. In addition, a growing number of jurisdictions have implemented Young Adult Courts and correctional facilities designed specifically for young adults.

In an era of intense divisions, criminal justice reform has attracted bipartisan support. Progress has been made in both red and blue states. The success some have achieved with juvenile justice should better inform how young adults are treated. This could result in both improved rehabilitation and less crime.  

Douglas Singleterry is counsel at Vasios, Kelly & Strollo and co-author of New Jersey Uniform Commercial Code. He is a former municipal prosecutor and has served on the North Plainfield Borough Council since 2005.


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