During a visit to Germany earlier this year, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was struck by its unusual approach to criminal justice: the nation treats all those under 21 as juvenile offenders.
"I believe that we can learn from their system," the Democrat said last week in a wide-ranging speech that touched on several issues of criminal justice. In it, he outlined proposals his office will be submitting to the state legislature next year. Principal among them is the proposal to follow Germany's lead and treat people as juveniles up until the age of 20.
"Let's consider this: age, within our laws and within the criminal justice system, is largely arbitrary," said Malloy.
In most states, including Connecticut, the juvenile justice system loses jurisdiction once a person turns 18. But in two states—New York and North Carolina—the age is set as low as 16. Connecticut also used to cut off at 16 until a law that went into effect during Malloy's term raised it. Now, he says, it needs to be raised even further.
"We would be the first in the nation to [raise the age of the juvenile justice system's jurisdiction to 20]," he said. "It's time to think about changing the artificial barriers that we impose. It's time that we get it right."
The change is needed, he argued, because the effect of treating (and often incarcerating) young adults among older adults only serves to harden young criminals who still stand a reasonable chance at rehabilitation. "Teenagers are different from young adults. Young adults are different from those in midlife," he said.
Notably, Malloy already won bipartisan support for an initiative that passed earlier this year aimed at reducing incarceration for nonviolent crimes, and allowing more people under 25 to shield past convictions from public disclosure and possibly expunge their records.
The new proposals are being pitched as an extension of that popular initiative, meaning they stand a significant chance of passage.
If passed, the new juvenile justice limit would affect thousands. Last year, 11,000 people aged 18, 19 or 20 were arrested in the state, according to the Connecticut Judicial Branch. About three quarters of the charges were misdemeanors.
“This is uncharted territory in terms of going that far," David McGuire, the legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut told the Connecticut Mirror. "It makes a lot of sense. It will save a lot of lives. It will really impact an entire generation."
Evidence of the "arbitrary" system of criminal justice punishment that Malloy spoke about can be found in the more than 3,000 children — some as young as 13 — who have been sentenced as adults to life in prison across the country, as found by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit which offers legal resources to "indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system." Courts have the flexibility to try children as adults in certain cases where they deem the case to fit the criteria. Many times, these cases have reached the Supreme Court, like the 2005 case that struck down the death penalty for people who committed murder while under the age of 18.
Earlier this year, local media reported that Connecticut's inmate population is already at a 10-year low, and that by early 2016 it could be at a 20-year low. Since 2010, three prisons have been shut down in the state.
Similar inmate reductions are being made in the state's juvenile justice system, Malloy said. When the state raised its juvenile age from 16 to 18 in 2012, many assumed it would mean that the juvenile courts and jails would be overwhelmed with new cases. "We now have the lowest number of juveniles in pretrial detention," he touted. "The number of inmates under the age of 18 at Manson Youth Institute is also at its lowest ever, down 75 percent since 2009."
"The best evidence of the success of Raise the Age is what has happened to young adults as they age out of the juvenile system. The number of inmates in a correctional facility between the ages of 18 and 21 is at its lowest in more than a quarter-century. It's down 51 percent over the last six years-and still dropping," Malloy said in the speech.
Scientific research has found that brains do not fully mature until the mid-20s. "The rental car companies have it right," reads a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Young Adult Development Project. "The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car."
Citing similar research, the governor's office has recognized the gray area that those between 18 and 25 occupy.
"Many of the young people currently caught in Connecticut's juvenile justice system, or the young adults who have already entered our adult system, grew up exposed to trauma in troubled homes," he said. "We must end a cycle of crime and create the opportunity for success. And we must recognize that what may be trailblazing today may be the norm tomorrow."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.