Mimesis Law
24 June 2019

Too Young to Buy Cigarettes & Alcohol, Old Enough for Justice

May 16, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — At 17, we hope our kids are still in school. At 17, we hope they are alcohol free. At 17, we hope they are prohibited from purchasing nicotine. We want our kids to grow up healthy and make good choices. Despite all our hopes, many 17-year-old kids are already adults in our criminal justice system. Too young to legally quit school, buy alcohol, purchase cigarettes, or vote in our elections, we have no problem saying they are old enough to be incarcerated and claim a criminal history.

When Chené Marshall got into a fight in high school, she assumed she might be suspended. Instead, the police arrested her.

Then a 17-year-old junior with no criminal record, she did not realize that Louisiana was in 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.

Their brains are still developing; lack of impulse control and youthful discretions are likely. Yet, our tough on crime, mass incarceration mantra called for tougher punishments. A school fight? Yes, what used to amount to detention or even swats is now criminal. And those unlucky enough to have reached 17 are treated suddenly like adults, as if some magic transformation has created a mind capable of adult thought, yet incapable of deciding whether or not buying cigarettes is a good idea.

Study after study has shown that juvenile systems can be much more successful than their adult counterparts. Juvenile systems, like our schools, are supposed to nurture and encourage young minds. Juvenile systems are focused on rehabilitation, or at least they are supposed to be. Yet, some states have resisted and instead decided that 17-year-olds are responsible enough to be adults.

At 17, Devin Harris is not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. But when he was accused of trying to use someone else’s credit card to buy cigarettes, he swiftly realized that — at least when it comes to the criminal justice system — the state of Louisiana considers him to be an adult.

“The last thing I wanted was to be in the system,” said Mr. Harris, who was in jail for nine nights in April because his mother could not afford the bond before he entered a pretrial diversion program. For the teenager, those were long nights. “I called my dad — I ain’t talked to my dad in almost two years,” he said. “I just needed somebody to talk to.”

The stories are all too common. Minor first-time offenders are thrown into the chaos of an adult system. No parents are called. Students are taken out of school. Lives are ruined; forever changed by an experience and criminal history.

Yes, there are those who would say, “don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” But at what cost? Do we really need to arrest children? Do we really need to treat all 17-year-olds as adults? Are we not harming society further by the stigma and experience these children face? How do we take children out of the prison pipeline when we purposefully start the pipeline against our children?

Finally, Louisiana, one of the nine states treating 17-year-olds as adults, is beginning to consider change.

Rob Reardon, the director of Lafayette Parish’s corrections division, has been one of the strongest proponents of the change. He says it does not make sense to put 17-year-olds in an adult environment where they will miss school and get a record for life. “We’ve created a perfect system for creating criminals,” he said.

When they spend a few weeks in his jail, Mr. Reardon said — and for those who cannot make bail, it is often 90 days or more — youths are expelled from school and never graduate.

We have taken students out of school ensuring they will not graduate, strengthening the chance they will fail, and enhancing their future in crime. In what world does this make sense?

Not only have we created a perfect system for creating criminals, we have done so at an exorbitant cost to the taxpayer as well:

Mr. Reardon estimates that it costs as much as $500,000 annually to house 17-year-olds at the Lafayette jail, even though they only have a few at any time. The Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003, requires those housed in adult facilities to be physically separated from older inmates.

Finally, at least some recognize the problem and are talking about change. Joshua Perry, the executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, pointed to a study done by the Institute for Public Health and Justice at Louisiana State University strongly supported raising the juvenile defendant age to 18 citing:

— At 17, adolescent brains are still developing, so young people are more likely to “engage in more risky and impulsive behavior.”

— Young defendants handled by the juvenile system had a 34 percent lower recidivism rate than those who went through the adult system.

— Inmates under 18 are more likely to be sexually abused by older inmates in prison.

For Louisiana teens, the tide may be turning. The realization that adolescent brains are still developing is nothing new. The Supreme Court has cited such over the years as it addressed capital punishment and automatic life sentences for juveniles. Even the state District Attorneys’ Association dropped its opposition to the change when its authors agreed to extend the phase-in period for change.

There’s a step in the right direction. Yes, it will be a slower change than originally proposed, but raising the adult age for the criminal justice system to 18 could actually happen now that prosecutors have dropped their opposition. And children like Marshall and Harris might never again have to spend nights in jail, in adult populations, fighting to just be a kid. Maybe our hope for our children isn’t lost after all.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Chris
    17 May 2016 at 6:26 am - Reply

    Schools definitely need to start handling the small stuff again instead of just calling in the cops for stuff that uses to be handled by detentions and suspensions.

    • JoAnne Musick
      17 May 2016 at 9:25 am - Reply

      Chris – you are absolutely correct! Not every bad decision needs to be criminalized. A school yard fight usually settled the problem between two kids. Cleaning the blackboards after school curbed a lot of classroom disruption. A trip to the principal’s office usually did the trick! Now, the principal calls the campus police. And, of course, they must justify their existence (and large budget) so citations are given and arrests are made. It’s a sad “war on childhood.”

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    19 May 2016 at 8:27 am - Reply

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