Defining adulthood as starting at age 18 in the criminal justice system is a flawed concept that disproportionately harms Black people while unjustly incarcerating emerging adults for life without parole, contends a report from The Sentencing Project. Beginning at age 18, U.S. laws typically require persons charged with a crime to have their case heard in criminal court rather than juvenile court. The identification of full criminal accountability at age 18 ignores emerging adulthood, argues the report. Most adolescents are not fully mature until their mid-twenties. Ages 18 to 25 mark a unique stage of life between childhood and adulthood. A 2022 study found similar levels of public support for providing a second look at prison sentences for crimes committed under age 18 as for those committed under age 25.
Two in five people sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) between 1995 and 2017 were under 26 at the time of their sentence; 66% of people under 26 years old sentenced to LWOP are Black compared with 51% of persons sentenced to LWOP beyond this age. More than a dozen states have introduced or passed legislative or judicial reforms in recent years to protect emerging adults from extreme punishment. The report recommends that sentences that preclude penalty reviews should never be imposed on individuals who have not yet reached adulthood and that life sentences with no option for parole review should be barred entirely for emerging adults and that penalties should be limited to a maximum of 15 years.