Youth justice has been a critical component of The Sentencing Project’s mission for years but in 2021 we are greatly expanding our capacity to address racial disparities and protect children from the most extreme elements of the adult criminal legal system. The Sentencing Project is prioritizing advocacy in states that still send 200 or more children automatically to adult court. We are fighting to ensure that the final three states with court jurisdictions below 18 raise the age, and address the gross racial and ethnic injustice that persists in our treatment of children as if they were adults.
This year’s ongoing legislative sessions have been a mix of successes and disappointments:
Raising the Age
All but three states – Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin – now routinely charge youth under 18 in juvenile courts and all three introduced legislation to remedy that. The Sentencing Project actively engaged with these states by recruiting experts to testify, creating briefing reports on declines in juvenile court caseloads, supporting coalition development, and providing campaign strategy to stakeholders and policymakers.
In Georgia, HB 272 passed the House, but failed in the Senate due to opposition from law enforcement. Leaders in the House have promised to pick up the fight next year.
In Texas, HB 967 would raise the age and has already had a hearing in the House. The bill is being moved with a bill that raises the minimum age of delinquency from 10 to 13.
In Wisconsin, Governor Evers has included raising the age in his annual budget, demonstrating its importance to the governor.
Missouri delayed the implementation of its raise the age law (which was supposed to take place on January 1) citing a lack of funding. This year, $18 million in implementation dollars were included in Governor Parson’s budget, and passage is expected.
Ending Automatic Transfer
Kentucky was the first state to end mandatory waiver this year by passing SB36 with an overwhelming margin. The Sentencing Project provided advocates with a comparative analysis of Kentucky’s youth sentencing laws. Kentucky is now one of nine states to require a hearing in juvenile court before a child can be transferred to adult court. Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada all also had active legislation to reduce automatic transfer of children. North Carolina is moving an amendment that grants prosecutors the discretion to decline sending lower-level felonies to adult court.
In Maryland and Pennsylvania, bipartisan task forces reviewed the effectiveness of their respective youth justice systems. Both are among the top five states to automatically prosecute children as if they were adults. Pennsylvania’s draft has strong recommendations for ending their automatic transfer provision, requiring instead that a juvenile court judge review all transfer cases prior to adult certification. The Sentencing Project supported the task forces’ work through written and verbal testimony.
While Maryland’s Juvenile Justice Reform Council (JJRC) failed to consider the issue of youth in adult courts, other recommendations reflected best practice in terms of reducing detention, serving children in their communities with less onerous supervision, and raising the minimum age of delinquency. In an op-ed for the Afro, The Sentencing Project’s Senior Advocacy Associate Josh Rovner lauded the common-sense steps the ensuing legislation would take, but noted its silence on youth in the adult system. After easy passage in the House of Delegates, the state Senate gutted the bill put forward by the JJRC.
Jail and Prison Removal
Indiana passed SB 368, the bill moves Indiana into full compliance with the jail removal provisions of the federal Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act by housing children pending adult charges in more appropriate youth-facilities. The Sentencing Project was very active in this campaign, facilitated the annual campaign meeting, educated lawmakers and testified. This bill was also an omnibus bill that included automatic expungement for many juvenile records and created a juvenile competency standard.
Juvenile Life without Parole
The Sentencing Project also saw movement in our on-going youth justice work on ending extreme sentences for children.
Ohio (SB256) and Maryland (SB494) became the 24th and 25th states to ban life without parole for people under 18 years old. The Sentencing Project supports reforms such as these through testimony and advocacy and continues to track the number of states that have banned life without parole in our JLWOP policy brief.
The US Supreme Court, in Jones v. Mississippi, slowed but did not stop the progress that’s been made to end death by incarceration for people under 18. The ruling still preserves restrictions on these severe sentences, requiring youth as a mitigating factor, but did not extend procedural protections in a way that might have banned JLWOP in its entirety. In June 2020, The Sentencing Project signed an amici brief supporting a new sentence for Brett Jones.