“Raise the Age”, “Direct File”, and More: States Pursuing Youth Justice Reforms in 2016
By Brian Evans, CFYJ State Campaign Coordinator
As the year 2016 moves towards its half-way point, one trend has been unmistakable: states are moving to keep more youth out of the adult criminal justice system. And it’s not a regional but a national phenomenon. Led by South Carolina, which is poised to “Raise the Age” of adult court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 – bills have passed both chambers and only minor reconciling of bill language remains – states are adopting a variety of policies designed to treat youth as youth.
Michigan and Louisiana have both seen “Raise the Age” bills pass in one of their legislative chambers – Michigan in the House, Louisiana in the Senate – and in both cases the prospect of the bills ultimately becoming law this year is good. In New York and Louisiana, the governors have vocally backed the “Raise the Age” efforts. In fact, eight of the 9 remaining states that have ages of criminal court jurisdiction lower than 18 have introduced legislation to “Raise the Age” over the past 2 legislative sessions.
But current reform efforts aren’t limited to “Raise the Age”. In Louisiana, Michigan, New York and Missouri, proposed reforms go beyond “Raise the Age” to include larger efforts to change the ways youth are treated by the criminal justice system.
In Alabama and Missouri, proposals to remove pre-trial youth from adult jails have made serious progress. Alabama’s bill passed in the Senate but fell short of the finish line when their session ended on May 6, while Missouri’s bill looks very likely to become law. Similar legislation has been proposed in Washington, D.C., as part of an omnibus youth justice package.
Indiana has passed a law allowing some youth sent to adult court to access to a “reverse transfer” process that could send them back into the juvenile system, and in Vermont the power of prosecutors to “Direct File” youth into adult court has been drastically curtailed.
In Florida, where such prosecutorial discretion is used more than in any other state, a bill to curb “Direct File” passed unanimously out of two Senate committees before running out of time at the end of that state’s short 60-day session. Another attempt to reform the use of “Direct File” by prosecutors is underway in California, where a governor-supported ballot initiative on the issue may go before voters in November.
While there are still too many mechanisms for transferring youth into the adult system, it is clear that the states have come to recognize how harmful and counter-productive such transfers are. The results of this year will be better justice for more youth, with powerful positive momentum and strong prospects for even greater gains in the coming years.