In an attempt to get Connecticut lawmakers to agree on a criminal justice bill that would eliminate bail for minor crimes, Governor Daniel Malloy unfortunately agreed to drop a proposal to raise the juvenile age in the state to 21 years old. Despite his compromise, the bail reform bill did not survive. Malloy started an important conversation on juvenile justice, however.
Malloy was originally inspired to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction after a visit to Germany to learn about that country’s criminal justice system. Germany locks up many fewer people per capita than the United States, with significantly better public safety statistics. Its criminal justice system explicitly makes rehabilitation a chief concern, whereas most scholars agree that the American criminal justice system is purposed toward deterrence and retribution. German law permits young offenders between 18 and 20 to be tried as juveniles, and most of the time they are.
Some conservative and tough-on-crime lawmakers saw the proposal as a way to keep young adults from taking responsibility for their criminal actions and demanded that the provision be dropped.
However, the consensus in the neuroscience community is that the adolescent brain does not stop maturing until the early to mid-twenties. Policymakers already treat individuals as juveniles until the age of 21 in a number of other circumstances, such as alcohol consumption, gambling, and recreational marijuana use in states where it is legal. In the private sphere, car rental companies regularly refuse to rent out vehicles to persons under 25 years old.
Malloy’s proposal still would have excluded 18- to 20-year olds charged with Class A (the most severe) felonies, “or in incidents when a judge believes the conduct is serious enough to warrant a transfer to adult court.”
Hopefully, as more people come to understand the emerging neuroscience research on juvenile brain development, proposals such as Malloy’s to raise the age for juveniles in the criminal justice system will be embraced in the future.