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Impact of Raise the Age on Mississippi’s juvenile courts

Posted in 2017, Campaigns Thursday, 31 August 2017

By Josh Rovner

On July 1, 2011, Mississippi implemented Senate Bill 2969 (2010) to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year olds charged with most felonies. Reading old news clips confirms sense of the déjà vu for other campaigns – we’ve been here before.

Initially, system stakeholders expressed concern that there would be an unmanageable influx of 17-year olds. “It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource[s],” according to a youth court judge in one of Mississippi’s largest counties. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”

This modest bill garnered tough accusations: after all, Mississippi already sent young misdemeanants to juvenile court, and the new law would still send youth as young as 13 charged with gun crimes and capital offenses to the adult court. Other felonies would start in the juvenile courts, and judicial waivers for any criminal offense would remain an option.

Looking back, it’s hard to see how adding some felony charges to the juvenile courts could have caused a significant strain. In 2010, the top five offenses for Mississippi’s juvenile courts were disorderly conduct, simple assault, being child in need of supervision, shoplifting and contempt of court – and none of these charges would be handled differently under SB 2969.

A straightforward before-and-after comparison is a little complex: the implementation took place at mid-year in 2011. However, the immediate impact of the increase was very small. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the number of juvenile court cases increased just 3 percent after the first full year of implementation in comparison to the prior year.

The state also experienced a 13 percent drop in juvenile cases in the first three full years after implementation of SB 2969 (2012-2014), compared to the three years prior (2008-2010). Mississippi has juvenile case data for 78 of its 82 counties. The number of juvenile cases decreased in 59 counties, two counties saw no change, and 17 counties saw an increase (and two of those had about one more case in the latter three-year period).

Looking at these data, the Campaign for Youth Justice CEO Marcy Mistrett said, “It seems the juvenile justice system has handled these youth effectively, without burdening the state court system.”

Unfortunately, the law had little impact on the number of youth committed to the [adult] Department of Corrections. Mississippi’s adult prisons held 25 juveniles in 2010, and 27 by the end of 2015.

For those awaiting trial as if they were adults, “Mississippi might want to explore moving youth certified as adults from county jails back under juvenile jurisdiction,” added Mistrett. “As Mississippi has demonstrated at the Youth Offender Unit at Walnut Creek, this would protect youth pending adult charges in a more developmentally appropriate setting.”

There are lessons here for the five states who still need to raise the age to 18 (Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin), as well as for those states beginning implementation (Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina). All policymakers should recognize that the juvenile justice system is better equipped than the adult system for all youth, including 17-year olds charged with felonies. And for those who oppose such reforms for the few 17-year olds who are arrested for serious or violent crimes, every state retains mechanisms to transfer children into the adult system.

The data from Mississippi’s juvenile courts demonstrates that the system surely has the capacity to remove youth from the adult courts. The rest of the country should sit up and notice.

Josh Rovner is the Juvenile Justice Advocacy Associate for The Sentencing Project, an organization that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.