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  • Meagan Dorsch
    Director of Public Affairs
  • Jon Kuhl
    Public Affairs Specialist
    Washington, D.C.
August 7, 2012

NCSL Report Shines Light on State Trends in Juvenile Justice Legislation Over Past Decade

Report Examines How State Legislatures Have Worked to Distinguish Juvenile Offenders from Adults & How to Save Money During Tight Budget Times

As juvenile crime rates have dropped over the last decade, state legislatures have reexamined juvenile justice policies to balance the interests of both public safety and the rehabilitation of young offenders, while seeking to make them as cost effective as possible as well during a difficult budget climate. A new report, Juvenile Justice Trends in State Legislation, 2001-2011, released Tuesday, August 7th by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) explores trends in juvenile justice state legislation over the past decade.

Distinguishing Juvenile Offenders from Adults
Legislators are using a growing body of research on adolescent development that says brains do not fully develop until age 25, accounting for the immature, emotional, and impulsive nature that makes juveniles more susceptible to committing crimes. Responding to this, states have expanded the jurisdiction of juvenile courts by increasing the upper age of jurisdiction. Thirty-eight states set the maximum age at 17, 10 states set the age at 16, and two states – North Carolina and New York – set it at 15. In 2007, a Connecticut law raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18. This action is  significant because extending the age limit in juvenile court affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of youths.

Recent  U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including its Miller v. Alabama  ruling in June of this year, point to the adolescent development research as well.  In this latest ruling, the court held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Treating Mental Health Needs of Juvenile Offenders
Between 65 and 70 percent of the two million youth arrested each year in the United States have some type of mental health disorder. With this in mind, states have focused on providing proper screening, assessment, and treatment services for young offenders with mental health needs. As just one example, a Colorado law now allows a 90-day suspended sentence, during which treatment is provided to juveniles with behavior disorders or mental health issues.

Disproportionate Minority Contact
Minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage at a higher rate than their white peers. Between 2005 and 2007, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee established committees or commissions to address the overrepresentation of minorities in their juvenile justice systems. And in 2008, Iowa became the first state to require a “minority impact statement,” which is required for proposed legislation related to crimes, sentencing, parole and probation.

In addition to the topics mentioned above, the Juvenile Justice Trends in State Legislation, 2001-2011 report also examines trends in due process and procedural issues, prevention and intervention, detention and corrections reform, and reentry/aftercare. NCSL also has provided a “Juvenile Justice Guide Book for Legislators."

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.

NCSL has a long- standing partnership with the MacArthur Foundation to inform and assist state legislatures on juvenile justice issues. The Foundation's Models for Change initiative is accelerating movement toward a more effective, fair and developmentally sound juvenile justice system by creating successful and replicable models that improve outcomes for youth, use resources wisely, and protect community safety. The 16-state system reform initiative is now in its 7th year. 

The report was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, which, through its Models for Change Initiative, supports juvenile justice reform toward enhanced public safety, better outcomes for youth and communities, and cost savings for taxpayers.