Vermont recently became the first state in the 119-year history of America's youth court to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be treated in the juvenile justice system. The goal is to increase public safety and the evidence from research indicates that this approach has the potential to be a game-changer in a field in desperate need of innovation. When the law goes into effect, these emerging adults will have access to youth rehabilitation programs and if incarcerated, be confined in youth facilities instead of mingled with adults in prison. Their crimes will be considered confidential, giving them a second chance to make better choices.
There is a growing recognition across the country that the current justice system's treatment of emerging adults has failed. Those years are an opportune time to support growth and rehabilitation, but the system automatically treats them the same as 40-year-olds, with poor results. After they experience the harsh realities of adult prisons, youth this age have the highest re-arrest rates of any group.
Recent research has found that emerging adults share many attributes with youth under age 18. Both are more volatile in emotionally charged settings, more susceptible to peer influence, greater risk takers, and less future-oriented. This is especially true of those who have suffered traumatic brain injury, which almost half of young adults in jails have.
Other research has found that there are certain developmental bridges — like obtaining gainful employment and entering into a stable marriage — that help young people mature out of problematic behavior. However, employment and marriage come later for today's youth than previous generations.
Vermont has taken advantage of this evidence by acknowledging that its juvenile justice system already has the experience and expertise to provide developmentally appropriate services to emerging adults, and to guide them during the important transition to adulthood. The opportunity to provide positive interventions goes beyond the 18th birthday, so Vermont has moved juvenile jurisdiction past that milestone. The law still allows Vermont to handle the most serious cases in adult criminal court when appropriate.
This approach is also consistent with how the state handles other activities where youths' judgments and behavior can be problematic and even harmful. For instance, youth under 21 cannot legally drink alcohol or consume marijuana; most rental car companies will not rent cars to them either. In this legislative session, Vermont also raised the age to purchase guns to 21.
Vermont is the leader but other states are not far behind. Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts have proposed legislation to raise the age of youth justice in their states to 21.
Earlier, Connecticut raised the age by two years just to get to the 18th birthday, and crime levels dropped. A report showed that from 2008 to 2015, juvenile arrests declined by 68 percent, even though the state had just added 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile system, eclipsing a 44 percent decline in overall arrests in Connecticut during that time.
There were also cost savings. According to a report, Connecticut's juvenile justice budget decreased from $139 million in 2001-02 to $137 million in 2011-12. And instead of overwhelming the system, the number of incarcerated youth declined to historic lows, allowing Connecticut to permanently close its only youth prison.
Emerging adulthood is an age of opportunity. It is when many of us as parents dream of our children's prospects with hopes for a bright future. It is also when people make mistakes, mostly small ones but sometimes not. Vermont will be able to hold teenagers accountable in a way that is much more likely to help them turn their lives around.
Vermont has blazed a new trail and we hope other states are not far behind.
Sen. Dick Sears is chair of the Vermont Committee on Judiciary and author of legislation raising the age of Vermont's juvenile court to include 18- and 19-year-olds. Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and senior research scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work. He is former commissioner of New York City Probation.