“Adulting” was a candidate for Oxford Dictionaries’ laudable Word of the Year 2016. While it was ultimately defeated by “post-truth,” the idea of “adulting” — “behaving in an adult manner” or “engaging in activities associated with adulthood” — has taken hold of our society. Using this millennial term to distinguish traditional, often mundane “adult” behavior from adolescent antics captures the feeling of most budding 20-somethings in a society where engaging in this behavior later in life — not earlier — is acceptable.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is not swift or easy. Kelly Williams Brown, author of “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps,” told The Atlantic: “I think there is a really hard transition (between childhood and adulthood). It’s not just hard for millennials. I think it was hard for Gen X-ers. I think it was hard for Baby Boomers. All of a sudden you’re out in the world, and you have this insane array of options, but you don’t know which you should take.”
Unfortunately, Missouri is one of only five states that treat 17-year-old children as adults in the criminal justice system. Before a person can even begin traditional adult rites of passage — voting, renting a car, ordering a cocktail — he or she can be arrested, tried and imprisoned as an adult.
This legislative session, both the Missouri Senate and House are considering whether the state should raise the age of criminal majority to 18, meaning that 17-year-olds would be processed through the juvenile justice system instead of the adult system. Lawmakers have until May 11 to take action.
Raising the age of criminal majority would not only align state law with our cultural understanding of adulthood; it would also give young people a better chance to grow into responsible, productive adults. It is far easier to rehabilitate youth offenders than adults, as long as they receive the appropriate guidance and education. Juvenile detention programs are more inclined to provide these rehabilitative and educational opportunities than adult jails or prisons.
The Show-Me State is well ahead of the curve on this front. The state Department of Youth Services’ juvenile rehabilitation strategy, dubbed the “Missouri Approach,” focuses on addressing root causes of delinquency by targeting participants’ individual needs.
The Missouri Approach boasts improved educational outcomes, increased participant safety and a recidivism rate well below that of other states. In fact, the method has proven so successful that at least 30 other states are considering adopting the model. Yet state law still shuffles 17-year-old offenders off to adult prisons, where they are far less likely to receive educational opportunities, far more likely to become victims of violence, and far more likely to commit another offense once released. By raising the age of criminal majority, the department can continue to ensure that more juveniles reenter society without committing further crimes.
Raising the age would also enable more young people to find a job when they rejoin society. Nationwide, approximately one-third of incarcerated youth find their way back into detention within a few years of release. Research has shown that finding employment quickly can reduce recidivism, but a criminal history can make getting work nearly impossible because employers can ask for information about an applicant’s criminal history on the initial job application. The University of Michigan School of Law found that applicants without felony convictions were 62 percent more likely to receive an interview than were those with criminal histories. By raising the age, Missouri could extend the juvenile court system’s private record retention policies to 17-year-olds and give more young people reentering society a fair chance to find gainful employment.
Opponents argue that juvenile rehabilitative systems will not be able to manage the cost increases as the number of children detained rises. Yet Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow in criminal justice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, studied data from states that have raised the age of criminal majority and suggests that treating 17-year-olds as juveniles may actually reduce public costs over time because they are less likely to re-offend than youths imprisoned as adults.
Fortunately, lawmakers in Missouri appear open to reaping the benefits that raising the age would confer on the state. All kids in Missouri, even those who have made mistakes, deserve to be protected from harm, to receive a quality education, and to land their first job rather than being thrust headfirst into adulting.
Jesse Kelley is a policy analyst and state affairs manager for criminal justice with the R Street Institute, a 501(c)3 think tank in Washington, D.C.