Louisiana is one of 10 states whose criminal justice system treats all 17-year-olds as adults. But that could soon change.
In what’s seen as a first step toward potentially raising the age of criminal jurisdiction in Louisiana, the Legislature has commissioned a study to determine whether 17-year-olds should continue to be treated as adults. To raise the age would require a change in state law.
The work, to be completed over the next seven months, will be overseen by Stephen Phillippi, director of the Institute for Public Health and Justice at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health.
Phillippi, who conducts biennial discussions on such topics, said he heard a lot of talk about the age of majority as he traveled Louisiana this year, talking with stakeholders from the state’s courts and law enforcement agencies about their chief concerns.
“What we heard loud and clear is that people are concerned with 17-year-olds: They’re asking, ‘Why are we treating 17-year-olds as adults?’ ” he said.
He believes that a confluence of factors has combined to move the issue to the front burner: compelling new research about adolescent development; public reaction to young inmates who were mistreated in adult facilities; and new federal rape-prevention standards that require governors to certify, at risk of losing federal grant money, that their sheriffs and state prisons completely separate adult inmates from those younger than 18.
Most states use 18 as the automatic age of adulthood for their criminal justice systems, though most have laws that allow certain younger teens charged with specific violent offenses to be transferred from juvenile courts and tried as adults.
In two states, New York and North Carolina, 16 is the age of adulthood. Eight other states, including Louisiana, automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. That number will shrink to seven on July 1, when New Hampshire raises its age to 18.
The movement away from treating juveniles as adults is rooted in a growing body of research on adolescent brain development showing that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults. That research is also the basis for three recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruling that youth are fundamentally different from adults and, as a result, cannot receive the death penalty or be subject to automatic life-without-parole sentences.
The science is cited in House Resolution 73, sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, which called for Phillippi’s report. It notes in part: “Whereas, behavioral science has shown that because of the biological properties of adolescent brains, when compared to adults, 17-year-olds are more prone to risky and impulsive behavior, less able to engage in moral reasoning or regulate their emotions, less able to consider long-term consequences of their actions, and more prone to the effects and stress of peer pressure.”
In some states, legislation has been spurred by incidents of abuse in adult correctional facilities, where research has shown that juveniles are much more likely to be assaulted or raped.
Last month, in the wake of new revelations about mistreatment of juveniles jailed on Rikers Island, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the New York Legislature to raise the age to 18, citing both correctional concerns and neurological studies. “We know far more about brain development in adolescents today than we once did,” Cuomo said. “Young people are less culpable than adults, and they hold greater promise for change.”
Cuomo also argued the current system disproportionately affects minorities; 82 percent of the youths confined in New York as adults are Hispanic and African-American men.
The racial breakdown is not known in Louisiana, where no one knows precisely how many 17-year-olds are held in juvenile lockups, state prisons and parish jails.
That will be Phillippi’s first challenge — to run reports based on date of birth and date of arrest: “To start, we are asking key data questions: ‘Who are these kids? Where are they? Why are they there?’ ”
Legislators further instructed the institute to see whether the state’s juvenile justice system has the capacity to hold all 17-year-olds arrested and also to look across systems, in consultation with key stakeholders, to determine more broadly “the potential impact of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds.”
The institute’s work will be supported by MacArthur Foundation grants. Its report and recommendations must be presented to the Legislature by Feb. 1.
In New Orleans, the City Council also has been taking a closer look at youth confinement. An ordinance authored by Councilwoman Susan Guidry and passed Thursday by the council designates the city-run Youth Study Center as the proper facility for some transferred teens up to age 16 who are charged as adults at high rates in Orleans.
The ordinance’s last paragraph notes that the goal of the City Council is the “removal of all children” — including those who are 17 — from Orleans Parish Prison, a move that it says “will require additional staffing and resources at Youth Study Center.”
Beyond concerns for child well-being, the idea of moving 17-year-olds to the Youth Study Center also reflects standards set by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. That law requires that inmates younger than 18 be kept completely separate from adults, even in states that view 16- or 17-year-olds as adults. Jails and prisons must be compliant or states risk losing certification and grants.
All this complicates the city’s long-standing squabble over how large a jail it needs.
Even if all teens 16 and younger are moved to the Youth Study Center, at least two of the 60-bed pods in the city’s new jail will have to be devoted to 17-year-olds, one for boys and one for girls. As a result, there has been discussion about moving all 17-year-olds to a separate wing of the Youth Study Center.
Sheriffs elsewhere have faced similar demands and have reacted by putting juveniles in solitary confinement for long periods of time, eating up otherwise-usable jail space and risking that juveniles could cause harm to themselves. “It’s not good for the jailer and not good for the kid. But if you don’t isolate them, you violate PREA,” Phillippi said.
As a result, there are cries to “raise the age” from previously unlikely allies, such as sheriffs in Texas and Louisiana, he said.
Also, when Phillippi talks with judges, district attorneys and probation officers, he realizes that personal experience plays a big role in shaping perspectives.
“People have teenagers,” he said. “And they do not want to see those teenagers treated as adults if arrested.”