This commentary was originally published in the Hartford Courant.
Facing an outbreak of car thefts committed by teens, police chiefs and prosecutors are pushing a bill that would send more young people into adult courts. Connecticut’s recent experience with juvenile justice reform shows why it’s the wrong choice.
Ten years ago, Connecticut was an outlier in dividing youths from adults in the justice system, typically done at age 18. A few states drew that line at 17, but Connecticut, along with New York and North Carolina, drew it at 16 years old. People who were arrested at age 16, even for vandalism or marijuana possession, were considered adults in Connecticut.
Sixteen was always an odd place to draw that line, contradicting scientific research on adolescent development and how our society operates in other arenas. Since 16-year-olds lack the maturity of adults, we don’t permit them to vote, serve on juries, own guns or get married without a parent’s consent.
Connecticut reformed its juvenile transfer laws to gradually add 16- and then 17-year olds into the juvenile system for most cases. (New York and North Carolina are implementing similar reforms.) A small number of serious offenses are automatically tried in adult courts, and juvenile court judges have discretion, if requested by prosecutors, to waive a longer list of serious crimes into the adult courts.
Though most experts oppose sending youths to adult courts, the judicial waiver process in Connecticut permits serious cases, including cases involving youths who repeatedly steal cars, to be tried in adult court. The waiver decision is based not only on the charge but also on the individual young person’s record, evidence of intellectual disability or mental illness, and availability of needed juvenile services. It’s important to know these things if the goal is to reduce recidivism.
In contrast to predictions by some that juvenile crime would increase if the age of court jurisdiction were raised, that has not been the case in Connecticut. The arrest rate for people under 18 is down 59 percent over the last 10 years for which data are available, equal to the nationwide decline. By comparison, adult arrests have fallen by “only” 24 percent.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane has blamed the “Raise the Age” initiative for the spate of car thefts. But it’s difficult to see how this policy somehow led to increases in one crime while most juvenile offenses dropped dramatically: teen arrests for robbery are down 48 percent, burglary by 61 percent, aggravated assault by 77 percent, and simple assault by 54 percent.
In the middle of this river of good news, one offense indeed stands out: car thefts. There have been 37 percent more arrests of people under 18 for car thefts since 2008. Something unfortunate is happening. And so some lawmakers have put forward House Bill 7332, which would make car theft an automatic adult offense, like murder, kidnapping and rape, for young people who have two prior felony convictions.
It’s a strange place to draw a new line, especially based on Connecticut’s experience. The evidence is strong that sending more young people into juvenile courts, instead of adult courts, has not generally compromised public safety.
To focus on one crime and one age bracket misleads. The increase in car thefts, following decades of decline, isn’t unique to Connecticut or its teenagers. Nationwide, teen arrests for car thefts are up 39 percent since 2013, the nadir. Connecticut’s laws surely aren’t to blame for teens’ car thefts in Tampa or Baltimore.
At the same time, adult arrests for car theft in Connecticut have increased 28 percent since 2013, belying the idea that car theft is a youth-specific problem. Police and prosecutors say the increase in Connecticut is due to more car owners leaving their cars running. Educating the public about how to take care of its property is a good place to start.
Rolling back the successful local reforms because of an unfortunate national trend is doomed to fail. Youth sent to adult courts and prisons are more likely to recidivate. The current law, which already allows for repeat young offenders to be charged in the adult courts, ought to be sufficient for those who insist the juvenile courts are too lenient. Now is not the time to go back.
Josh Rovner is a Senior Advocacy Associate at The Sentencing Project.