When Chené Marshall got into a fight in high school, she assumed she might get suspended. Instead, the police arrested her.
Then a 17-year-old junior with no criminal record, she did not realize Louisiana was one of the dwindling minority of states where all 17-year-olds are treated as adults by the criminal justice system.
She was charged with battery, with bail set at $5,000. She was booked and clothed in a jumpsuit at the Orleans Parish Prison, a notoriously violent facility where she bunked along with women of all ages and histories.
“I had a fight that first night,” she recalled of her jailing in 2011. “It’s called ‘testing your weight,’ to see if you’re scared or they can own you.”
She spent three nights in the jail before her great-aunt, who had raised her from infancy, could come up with a bondsman’s $650 fee and secure her release.
Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote, buy cigarettes or even adopt a dog from an animal shelter. But as of today, in nine states, including Louisiana, they are automatically handled as adults, rather than as juveniles. In two states, New York and North Carolina, 16-year-olds are as well.
Now Louisiana and several other states among those nine appear to be on the verge of raising the cutoff to the more standard age of 18 – part of a national “raise the age” movement that has won bipartisan support, a result of concern about high incarceration rates and growing neurological evidence that young people’s brains are different from adult brains.
South Carolina among states considering higher-age bill.
A bill to phase in the higher age passed the Republican-dominated Louisiana Senate on May 2, has the strong support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and appears to be moving forward in the House.
A similar measure appears to be on the verge of adoption by the South Carolina Legislature.
Here in Louisiana, the change could alter the lives of close to 5,000 17-year-olds who are arrested each year, mainly for nonviolent misdemeanors. Under the new law, even if they were given prolonged stays in juvenile facilities, they could receive therapy and a chance for high school degrees rather than criminal records and exposure to hardened criminals.
To allay concerns that the state’s juvenile system, already caught in a severe budget crisis, is not prepared for an influx, the bill would phase in the change, with nonviolent offenders making the switch in 2018, and the rest in 2020, said Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which provides public defenders for children and has lobbied for the bill.
As in other states, prosecutors would retain the option to transfer juveniles who commit particularly serious crimes into adult courts.
In the peak “tough on crime” years of the 1990s, many states acted to send more young offenders to adult courts. But in the past seven years, Illinois and Connecticut increased the age for automatic treatment as adults to 18 from 16, and Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Mississippi raised it to 18 from 17.
The experience in those states has bolstered the case for change, said Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow in criminal justice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former justice official in New York City and Washington.
While the declining crime rate makes comparisons difficult, evidence suggests treating 17-year-old offenders as juveniles might reduce public costs over time, he said, because they are less likely to commit future crimes than youths who are punished as adults. Fears that crime would rise or detention facilities would be overwhelmed have proved incorrect.
Officials in Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont are discussing raising the cutoff to 21, though this is more widely disputed. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed raising the age for adult culpability to 18, but members of the Republican-controlled state Senate have expressed concerns about transitional costs as well as public safety.
In Lafayette, Louisiana, Rob Reardon, director of corrections for the parish, explained why he thought both the state and the young offenders would be helped by treating 17-year-olds as juveniles.
“This is an adult jail,” he said, “and the outcomes for the young people just have to be terrible.”
On a recent day, the parish jail held eight male and one female 17-year-olds, awaiting adjudication for crimes that ranged from trespassing to murder.
When they spend a few weeks in his jail, Reardon said – and for those who cannot make bail, it is often 90 days or more – youths are expelled from school and never graduate.
The presence of 17-year-olds is also a major resource strain, he said. Inmates generally live in pods of 13 cells with double bunks, or 26 to a pod. According to a federal law (one that has frequently been violated in New Orleans), youths must be kept separate, so one entire pod was occupied by just the eight 17-year-old boys, who were tended 24 hours a day by a guard. The 17-year-old girl was housed alone in a unit with four cells.
The separation also means the youngest inmates cannot take part in activities such as kitchen work. In the youth pod in Lafayette, guards had brought in coloring books and jigsaw puzzles to give the boys something to do.
In New Orleans, Marshall, now 22, was lucky in some ways after her arrest.
A judge allowed her to enter a diversion program; if she attended an anger management class, stayed drug free and continued in school, the criminal charge would be dropped.
She finished high school the next year. But now, five years later, she still lives with her great-aunt, Yolanda Wills, in east New Orleans, where a mantel in their home is filled with Marshall’s high school athletics trophies.