Research shows that young offenders who are handled in the juvenile justice system are less likely to repeat their crimes than those who go to the adult system. Adult prosecution also increases the likelihood that young offenders will escalate into violent crime. A 1996 study found that the recidivism rate went up 90 percent for kids who did time in adult facilities. The same study showed that processing in adult court increased by 80 percent the likelihood of being subsequently arrested for a weapons offense. Multiple studies in various states have shown similar results.
Something else that has changed measurably since 1995 is the prevalence of youth crime, which was a large part of the argument for lowering the age to 17. Both nationally and in New Hampshire, juvenile delinquency is on the decline. In 2003, the state processed 5,800 delinquency cases; by 2012, the number fell to 2,880, a drop of just over half. We have the capacity to add 17-year-olds to our juvenile justice system; and even with the addition of 17-year-olds, the juvenile justice system will still be smaller than it was in 2003.
The vast majority of offenses committed by people under 18 are misdemeanors, and if the age is raised, judges will still have the option of transferring any juvenile accused of a felony to adult court. Even 17-year-olds who receive long sentences will eventually be released. The younger the offender, the more important it is that our policies promote rehabilitation. Adult prosecution does the opposite.
I am a firm believer that young people should be held accountable, but it should be within the juvenile justice system where they’ll be mandated to go to school, have counseling and participate in other rehabilitative activities. We know that most adolescents who engage in delinquent acts do not persist in crime long into adulthood. The juvenile justice system capitalizes on adolescents’ capacity for rehabilitation, while the adult system diminishes it. Putting children in an adult prison gives them a new peer group – adult criminals - which exposes them to horrific danger.
Returning 17-year-olds to the juvenile system is the right thing to do, for our kids and for the safety of our communities. It’s time for New Hampshire to join forty other states and raise the age to 18.
Rep. Kenneth Weyler (R)
Representing the towns of Kingston and Hampstead