Why All States Should Embrace Vermont’s Raise the Age Initiative

Facebook Twitter More...

Author: Katie Dodds is a CJJ Communications Intern for Summer 2020

As of July 1, 2020, Vermont’s age for original jurisdiction in juvenile court has increased to include 18-year-olds, rendering it the state with the highest juvenile jurisdiction age cutoff in the country. The state’s court jurisdiction will increase further in the coming years; on July 1, 2022, it will expand to include 19-year-olds and again in 2024 to include 20-year-olds. It should be noted, however, that this new law does provide for certain statutory and discretionary exceptions for a number of serious, violent crimes that will be handled in adult court. New York also raised its age to 18, effective October 1, 2019, and in 2019, Michigan’s governor signed a similar bipartisan bill to raise the age for juvenile offenders to 18; this change will go into effect in October of this year. Massachusetts has established a task force to consider raising its age to 21.

Although these age-cutoff increases by Vermont, Michigan, and New York have been progressive in comparison to most other states, similar “raise the age” campaigns have successfully raised the cutoff ages of juvenile jurisdiction in many other states. By 2021, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction will be 18 in Vermont, Michigan, and New York, 17 in 44 states, and 16 in only three: Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin. While this might seem like significant progress, given that 12 states had maximum juvenile delinquency ages of 15 or 16 just 8 years ago in 2012, much work remains to be done based on what we know through modern science.

Neurobiologists have determined that “the critical parts of the brain involved in decision-making are not fully developed until… age 25.” Research has found that while adults think with their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is more rational and aware of long-term consequences, teens tend to overuse the amygdala, the brain’s emotional component. In the teen brain, the connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, inhibiting teens’ abilities to make good choices. Some studies even suggest that the brain continues to evolve and change shape into one’s thirties or forties. We have known this for at least a decade, yet our criminal justice system continues to classify older teenagers as adults for jurisdiction purposes. States still sometimes transfer those below the age cutoff to be tried and sentenced as adults.

Youths in adult jails and prisons are also in far greater danger than they are in juvenile corrections facilities. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, minors serving in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and nine times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities. Young people are also less likely to be rehabilitated after coming into contact with the adult criminal justice system; that is, they are actually 34 times more likely to recidivate than they would be after serving time in juvenile detention facilities. While the juvenile justice system, on the whole, has a somewhat rehabilitative focus, adult jails and prisons are more punitive. Locking children up in adult facilities tells them we’ve given up on them.

We need to “raise the age” without exception; raising the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction should include even teen offenders convicted of the most serious crimes. As of 2016, all states had laws allowing the transfer of juvenile court cases to adult criminal courts under certain circumstances. An estimated 200,000 youths are tried as adults annually. How can we acknowledge that minors’ brains are universally undeveloped while nonetheless punishing the children most in need of help and leniency as if they were adults? Although sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a crime in which no one was killed has been deemed unconstitutional, states have circumvented this ruling by sentencing youths to “virtual” life sentences in which they are almost guaranteed to die in prison. 

Many reforms are still needed to make juvenile sentencing fairer and more appropriate, but Vermont is certainly headed in the right direction with the success of its “raise the age” campaign. We call on other states to follow Vermont’s lead by raising the minimum age of adult criminal responsibility to 20. Ideally, states would ultimately raise the age all the way to 25. Small progress can eventually yield big results.