The Louisiana Senate on Monday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would increase the age for which a juvenile can be tried as an adult.

The Senate voted 33-4 to prosecute 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system rather than in the adult criminal justice system, which is the current law. Part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ legislative package, Senate Bill 324 now heads to the House for consideration.

The measure would change the legal definition of a delinquent, making the age 18 instead of 17. It’s called the Raise the Age Act of 2016.

New Orleans Sen. JP Morrell, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation, pointed out that legally 17-year-olds cannot sign a contract because the courts have found they lack the mental maturity. “We’re talking about kids,” Morrell said.

Morrell said other states that have raised the age for prosecuting juveniles as adults have realized a savings of about $2 million a year.

Louisiana is one of only nine states that exclude all 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system — even for the most minor, nonviolent offenses.

Advocates for the change argue that juveniles are more likely to change their behavior, so they should be given a second chance. Unlike adult prisons, which are primarily custodial, juvenile facilities are supposed to be more treatment- and therapy-based, giving minors a better chance to be rehabilitated.

Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor, a former New Orleans prosecutor, argued in favor of the legislation, said a lot of teenagers do stupid things, sometimes resulting in a criminal prosecution. The legislation allows flexibility to charge 17-year-olds as adults if they commit violent and predatory crimes, he noted.

But the vast majority of teenagers don’t commit those kinds of crimes and would benefit from the more lenient punishments in a juvenile justice system that focuses more on giving them a helping hand to correct their behavior, Claitor said. “Given the opportunity, most will grasp it,” he said.

“Not only is this common sense policy, it is — more importantly — about not giving up on any child. We know that 17-year-olds who do time in an adult facility are at a greater risk for assault and are more likely to end up back in prison,” Edwards said in a prepared statement after the Senate vote.

SB324 is part of a package of measures that would change the processes in the juvenile justice system.

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