New Orleans, Lafayette teenagers to lobby legislators about raising age for adulthood in criminal justice system _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Christina Griffith, a junior at G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy, left, Jasmine Jeff, a senior at Sci Academy, and Imani Hardy, a senior at Carver, have all written papers about raising the state age for criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18. On Wednesday they will be part of a group of 300 public-school students who will travel to Baton Rouge to lobby legislators on SB 324, the Raise the Age Louisiana Act. Photo taken in New Orleans, La. Saturday, April 2, 2016.

Earlier this year, Jasmine Jeff went to the animal shelter feeling like a responsible teenager — and walked away feeling like a child.

Her father had told her she could adopt a dog. So Jeff, who was then 17, walked into the shelter, looked in the first window and fell in love with a terrier, small in size but with outsized charm, she said. But she was then told she was not eligible to adopt it because she was not yet 18.

Walking to her car empty-handed, Jeff felt the sting more acutely than she would have in the past. For this year, her civics class at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy is debating whether Louisiana should raise the official age of adulthood for criminal infractions from 17 to 18.

“Right now, the law in Louisiana is that you can be tried as an adult and go to adult prison at age 17,” Jeff said. “But when I was 17, I couldn’t adopt a dog.”

Teens also can’t vote, serve on juries, buy beer or cigarettes, or join the military, she said.

On Wednesday, Jeff and about 300 other teenage students from Lafayette and New Orleans public schools will travel to Baton Rouge to ask state legislators to support the Raise the Age Act, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D–New Orleans.

The bill, which has the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, would move 17-year-olds who are arrested into the jurisdiction of Juvenile Court.

Morrell has introduced a number of other laws that affect juveniles, but the young people affected have rarely shown up at committee hearings or weighed in before the floor debate. “I’ve never seen kids this engaged,” Morrell said.

Their teachers say they have watched as their students’ passion has grown.

“It started as a class project, and now, holy moly, they could be involved in changing a state law,” said Jim Kline, a civics teacher at Sci Academy, one of more than a half-dozen Orleans schools and programs that are sending children to the Capitol on buses paid for by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

“It’s about the best you can get as a civics teacher,” said Katie Wills, who teaches at Carver Collegiate.

The bill will be heard before the Senate’s Judiciary B Committee on Tuesday. If it’s passed out of committee, floor debate will likely begin next week at the earliest.

Morrell said he thinks the teenagers who visit the Capitol on Wednesday could have a significant impact on legislative discussions.

Legislators often dismiss other people’s positions by saying that their views reflect their self-interest, Morrell said. “But these are not third-time felons looking for a break,” he said. “These are teenagers saying, ‘I’m a kid. You tell me I’m a kid. So if I do have a brush with the law, I don’t want to be treated as an adult.’ That gives this debate a different tenor.”

For Christina Griffith, a junior at G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy, the issue feels personal. “I have a 17-year-old brother. I know how I would feel and how my mom would feel if he were tried as an adult,” she said. “So I want to ask legislators, ‘If your kid was 17 and they were being tried as an adult, how would you feel?’ ”

Groundwork for the Raise the Age Act was laid last year, when the Legislature, through a resolution authored by Rep. Walt Leger III, D–New Orleans, commissioned a study about whether 17-year-olds should be treated as adults in the justice system.

In February, the Institute for Public Health and Justice at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health delivered the results of the study, which recommended that Louisiana should “strongly consider” raising the age. “Findings suggest that this change would benefit public safety, promote youth rehabilitation and create long-term savings,” the report concluded.

The results are pretty easy to sum up, said Carlos Wilson, 17, a classmate of Jasmine Jeff’s at Sci Academy, who also read the report and wrote a lengthy paper about it. “Moving the age to 18 is smart. We’ll save money. And we’ll have a happier community,” he said.

Louisiana is one of nine states that treat all 17-year-olds as adults. Most states use 18 as the automatic age of adulthood for their criminal justice systems, though most — like Louisiana — also have laws that younger teens charged with certain violent offenses can be transferred from juvenile courts and tried as adults.

Morrell’s proposed law would leave those transfer provisions in place.

If the bill passes, Louisiana would become one of a growing number of states that are moving away from treating juveniles as adults.

A few key factors have pushed the trend. Federal rape-prevention standards now 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, who are much more likely to be mistreated, be assaulted or commit suicide when held in adult facilities.

Jeff knows someone who was arrested as a teenager and spent about a year in Orleans Parish Prison on a drug charge. “His family members say it changed him definitely, that he used to be a really sweet boy but that his time in jail made him defensive and angry,” she said, adding that it took him several years to recover from that time, though he is doing better now.

Imani Hardy, who attends G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy, which is in the same charter school network as Sci Academy and Carver Prep, said that experience seems to be common, citing research showing that young people incarcerated in adult facilities often emerge traumatized. They also are more likely to commit new crimes after they are released. “They learn the ways of older inmates, and when they get out, they rely upon what they learned in jail,” Hardy said.

Nationally, policy and judicial changes are being driven by new research about adolescent development that finds teenage brains are fundamentally different from adult brains. That research is cited in several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that held youth younger than 18 cannot receive the death penalty or be subject to automatic life-without-parole sentences.

The findings probably came as no surprise to anyone with teenagers in their household, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 2005 decision that barred teen killers from execution. “As any parent knows,” Kennedy wrote, “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.”

Other data, including a seven-year study on delinquent teenagers conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, show that few teens continue to offend into adulthood.

The research shows that, because of how their brains work, teens are less able to consider long-term consequences and are more susceptible to peer pressure.

Carlos Wilson distills that finding. “As a teen, you just want to be with your friends,” he said, explaining how he and his friends have curfews set by their parents. “But we missed curfew the other night because we were playing basketball, and we just wanted to finish our last game.”

Last week, Jeff spent much of the week working at her part-time job at a shoe store in Gentilly. But she also was preparing herself for speaking with legislators on Wednesday.

“I was talking to my supervisor about minors being tried as adults,” she said, “and my supervisor said that some of these minors deserve to be in adult prison. So I had to explain to her that there’s a difference between being transferred and being put automatically in adult prison.”

Christina Griffith said she wants to emphasize that adult punishment is inappropriate for 17-year-olds. “There are other ways to help kids get right,” she said. “You don’t have to treat them like an adult criminal when they’re still growing up and maturing.”