When It Comes to Raising the Age, One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Recently, the New York Post made a splash in the juvenile justice community with a definitive-sounding headline: “‘Raise the Age’ laws are making youth crime worse.” It’s a hot take that’s worth scrutinizing.
Up front, it’s important to remember that not all raise the age (RTA) laws are created equal. There are major differences in RTA policy across the country. In fact, the law the New York Post criticizes is quite different from those in other states, many of which apply to much younger children.
For those unfamiliar, RTA reforms change the minimum age at which a child can be charged in court, adjudicated and incarcerated. There are two types of RTA laws that apply to varying ages:
1) Those that raise the upper boundary, or “ceiling,” determine the oldest age a minor can be charged in juvenile court with a delinquent act.
2) Those that raise the lower boundary, or “floor,” determine the youngest age a child can be charged in juvenile court with a delinquent act.
New York’s RTA law, which raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old, is an example of raising the ceiling to keep older kids out of adult court. Florida’s RTA law, which prohibits the arrest or prosecution of children under 7, is an example of raising the floor to keep younger kids out of court altogether. Though these laws are both lumped under the rubric of RTA, they don’t actually have much in common.
According to research on the age-crime curve, young children and adolescents are dramatically different from a criminogenic perspective. Crime tends to increase from late childhood in an asymmetrical bell curve, peaking in the teenage years and then declining from the early 20s onward. While there may be legitimate public safety concerns about raising the ceiling on older kids due to their increased risk of delinquency, keeping toddlers out of the criminal justice system by raising the floor is comparatively common sense.
Ironically, the lower end of the age spectrum has received relatively little attention from policymakers. Twenty-four states still don’t have any lower age boundary at all when it comes to arresting juveniles (see map). These are the places where we should be targeting RTA reforms.
Where Is the Floor for Juvenile Court Jurisdiction in the United States?
Source: “Raising the Minimum Age for Prosecuting Children,” National Juvenile Justice Network, June 2023. https://www.njjn.org/our-work/raising-the-minimum-age-for-prosecuting-children.
One example of a smart-on-crime RTA proposal is Colorado’s recent attempt to raise the floor from 10 to 12. Unfortunately, despite garnering bipartisan support in both chambers, the bill failed to pass.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the research cited by the New York Post. Both studies—one by the Manhattan Institute and another by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency—find that the state has experienced an uptick in juvenile crime since these laws were implemented. However, it’s important to remember that coinciding lines on a graph don’t always plot the whole story.
Most RTA laws have only been adopted during the past couple of years, so it’s still too early to determine their effect. Program evaluations require more time to filter out short-term data fluctuations, which could be nothing more than statistical noise or results of other factors. For example, it’s likely that New York’s uptick in youth crime has nothing to do with RTA but is actually a manifestation of a national trend.
Jurisdictions are diverse, which calls for tailored approaches to RTA. New York’s experience might raise eyebrows, but it is merely one piece in a mosaic of RTA reforms that cannot be easily distilled into a catchy headline or simplified narrative. Understanding the nuances of RTA policy is essential to craft laws that both protect public safety and keep kids out of the system whenever possible.