Criminal Justice Report: 18-Year-Olds Don't Belong in Adult Court

Oct 16, 2020

A new report puts some weight behind arguments that young adults should not be prosecuted in adult court in Illinois.

The findings from the Juvenile Law Center confirmed youth incarceration rates have fallen in recent years, as officials recognize the developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

But incarceration rates haven't declined among young adults, ages 18 to 24.

Katrina Goodjoint, staff attorney for the Juvenile Law Center and the report's co-author, explained members of this age group are treated legally as adults, despite sharing some adolescent behaviors.

"They have poor decision-making, they're impulsive, they're susceptible to peer pressure and they're engaging in risky behavior," Goodjoint reported. "So, when we talk about raising the age, we talk about better ways to be more forgiving and supportive of 'emerging adults' rather than punitive."

The report calls for raising the age above 18 for juvenile court. In Illinois, emerging adults are overrepresented in the justice system, accounting for 15% of the adult population. They also account for 33% of all adult arrests, despite a 47% decrease in the number of arrests for this age group in the past decade.

Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University Justice Lab, noted Illinois incarcerates emerging adults who are Black at one of the highest rates in the country.

"So, at a time when we're at sort of a national reckoning on racial disparities, emerging-adult justice reforms - and in particular, 'raise the age' - should be at the very top of the to-do list for legislators," Chester contended.

The Juvenile Law Center report highlights local reform initiatives in Illinois, including a young -adult court restorative justice program in North Lawndale, and Cook County's young adult pilot project for 18-to-26-year-olds charged with nonviolent offenses.

Goodjoint added community supports are also key.

"Housing, employment, education, mental health and behavioral health services; having better supports for those can actually lead to a decrease in recidivism," Goodjoint stressed. "So actually making communities safer and better supportive of emerging adults."

Vermont recently became the first state to raise the age for juvenile court to over 18. Chester noted it will gradually increase to include 20-year-olds by 2024, as emerging adults are directed to diversion programs.

"The fear that so many states have 'Oh we can't do this, the sky will fall' doesn't happen," Chester asserted. "Incorporating 18-year-olds has been a very smooth process."

In Illinois, Senate Bill 239 calls for a tiered approach to raising the age, starting with sending misdemeanor cases involving older teens to juvenile court, rather than adult court.