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Giving Juveniles A Chance

Recently, Wisconsin and Georgia have been fighting to raise the age of adult crimes from 17 to 18. Both states’ current maximum age for juvenile detention is 16 years old. As of right now, 46 states have their maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction at 17. 

In 2020, Vermont raised its juvenile age of jurisdiction to 18 years old, being the first state to do so. Whereas Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas still have their age of juvenile court at 16. Although all states have laws that would still prosecute young offenders as adults when more serious offenses such as rape or murder are committed, to treat 16 year-olds to same as an adult is not only unfair but cruel.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers sent in a budget proposal in advocacy to raise the juvenile age of jurisdiction. 

“We are one of the only states in the nation that has not made this evidence-based change in ensuring that youth are treated as youth, and that needs to change now,” Evers said.

The House Juvenile Justice Committee also just approved the Georgia House Bill 272, which is now going to the House for more debate. There’s been a push for this change because trying a 17-year-old as an adult would take away their second chance at life. 

Now, this debate over what age a person should be sent to juvie or to jail is due to the differences between the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system. 

The first difference is seen when they are arrested. Children and adults are taken to separate detention facilities. In juvenile detention centers, they’re required to participate in academic education or other similar programs that are chosen to help them grow academically and socially while detained. Whereas adults are often not afforded this opportunity. 

The second difference is the type of system that they are put into. The juvenile justice system is focused on rehabilitation and the children are treated and spoken to by judges, the state and guardians in a way to show that they need improvement. For adults, although rehabilitation is included in the system, it’s still largely focused on punishment. 

Another disturbing statistic is that children in adult jails are nine times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in juvenile facilities. 

Additionally, studies in cognitive neuroscience have provided evidence to suggest that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt confirms that fact in an NPR interview.

“Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal,” Aamodt said. 

Along with that, there is also the mesolimbic dopamine system — a circuit that creates feelings of pleasure when it’s activated by something we enjoy, which makes people around that age more sensitive to peer pressure. Maturity of this area of the brain can happen between 18 and 25, proving we are only halfway through puberty by 18. Thus, it is clear that teens and young adults do not yet have a steady maturity level. This is amplified when other factors such as environment and home stability are considered.

There’s already an overcrowding problem in prisons and jails caused by criminal justice policies that use prison as an option for minor offenses while the facilities are still struggling to even meet basic human needs. While this is a whole other issue within the criminal justice system, counting more children into that system is unnecessary and harmful to their future.  

It’s important for the criminal justice system to allow 17-year olds to be entered into the juvenile justice system instead of being tried as an adult. With an exception of serious offenses, children deserve at least a chance to rehabilitate and improve themselves. It’s scientifically proven those between 18 and 25 years old are still developing skills while learning from their mistakes. Treating children and adults in the criminal justice system as equals is simply unfair. 

Fiona Liu is an Opinion Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at fional5@uci.edu