A significant shift from the “get tough” philosophy of the 1980s and ’90s for youth offenders has resulted in far fewer children being prosecuted in adult courts. That has meant second chances for untold thousands of youths. Data reported to the FBI by police departments shows the percentage of youths taken into custody who were referred to adult courts dropped from eight percent in 2010 to two percent in 2019 and one percent in 2020, although that year’s data is unusual because of the coronavirus pandemic, which closed many courts, the Associated Press reports. Instead, more teenagers are being sent to juvenile courts or community programs that steer them to counseling, peer mediation and other services aimed at keeping them out of trouble.
The shift has been mostly supported by law enforcement officials. Some worry that leniency has emboldened a small number of young criminals, including in Connecticut, where state lawmakers passed legislation to clamp down on youth crime. States have been raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 for most crimes. Only three states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — continue to prosecute every 17-year-old in adult courts, according to The Sentencing Project. The “raise the age” movement has been encouraged by research showing teens’ brains haven’t yet fully developed key decision-making functions. Other studies show locking young people up in adult systems can be harmful — physically and psychologically — in addition to putting them at risk to commit more crimes. “We see across the board for young folks, regardless of what they may be charged with, that what works is community-based intervention, what works is connecting young folks with people in their own communities, letting communities lead reform efforts,” said Naomi Smoot Evans of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit working to prevent children from being involved in the courts. in the U.S., an estimated 250,000 minors were charged as adults each year in the early 2000s. The number dropped in 2019 to about 53,000, according to the nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.