The State of Youth Justice

Prevention and Rehabilitation in the Spotlight

With growing awareness that incarcerating young people marks their lives indelibly, more states focused in 2018 on when children and young adults should fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system or adult criminal courts.

Several states enacted measures that alter when young people are subject to prosecution by the adult criminal justice system; others altered how long they can be subject to the juvenile justice system.John Kelly, “In Another Big Year for ‘Raise the Age’ Laws, One State Now Considers All Teens as Juveniles,” Chronicle of Social Change, June 25, 2018. Some states sought effective ways to prevent kids from coming into contact with the justice system at all: California, both on the local and state level, implemented new laws and programs to reduce the number of youth arrests, particularly among young people of color.California AB 1584 (2018). And Congress reauthorized the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for the first time in more than a decade, renewing core protections for youth.Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, H.R. 6964, 115th Congress (2018). But the U.S. Supreme Court, despite its own 2010 ruling barring life sentences without parole for people under 18, refused to hear the appeal of a 16-year-old sentenced to 241 years in prison.“Supreme Court Rejects Appeal of St. Louis Man with 241-Year Prison Term,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 24, 2018.

States also focused on living conditions for young people in adult criminal justice systems. Connecticut, building on its work with young men, launched a new initiative to transform prison conditions for young women, while the state of South Carolina signed on to do the same for young men in its correctional system, and one Massachusetts county began a similar jail-based program.Clarice Silber, “New Prison Unit Opens to Help Young Female Inmates,” Connecticut Mirror, July 9, 2018; Brittney McNamara, “South Carolina Adopts Vera Institute of Justice’s Restoring Promise Initiative,” Teen Vogue, January 30, 2018; and Robert Hayes, “Young Offender Unit Opens at Middlesex Jail & House of Correction,” Wilmington Apple, February 16, 2018.

Advocates targeted communities like incarcerated girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth. The forces that drive these groups into the crosshairs of the juvenile and criminal justice systems don’t necessarily match the traditional narratives of incarceration.Angela Irvine and Aisha Canfield, “Reflections on New National Data on LGBQ/GNCT Youth in the Justice System,” LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School 7, no. 1 (2016-17), 27-36. Also see Lindsay Rosenthal, Girls Matter: Centering Gender in Status Offense Reform Efforts (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), no. 3. Finding out why they are disproportionately ending up in the system may be the key to getting them out of it.

Top Things to Know

  1. Congress reauthorizes Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
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  2. More states enact measures that alter when young people are subject to the adult criminal justice system.
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  3. States make changes to juvenile court jurisdiction over young children—and young adults.
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  4. Los Angeles County and the state of Florida launch comprehensive youth diversion plans.
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  5. Connecticut, South Carolina, and Middlesex County, Massachusetts reimagine incarceration for young people in adult prisons.
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  1. SCOTUS rebuffs appeal of juvenile life sentence.
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  2. New initiative seeks to end girls’ incarceration.
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Facts and Figures

On Our Radar

  • California adopts strict rules on collecting DNA from children.
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  • New initiative seeks to collect data about system-involved LGBT kids.
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  • Juvenile detention facilities are closing, undergoing transformations.
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  • Organizations seek expanded youth diversion programs and changes to youth probation.
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Best of 2018


Vera Staff

External Reviewers

  • Nate Balis
  • Angela Irvine
  • Marcy Mistrett