Why Vermont Raised Its Juvenile Court Age Above 18 — And Why Mass. Might, Too

Download Audio

As Massachusetts considers changing the way it handles young criminal offenders, it is looking at what's happening north — specifically, to Vermont.

Vermont is the first state to raise the age above 18 for when someone criminally charged goes to juvenile court, expanding what it's doing in hundreds of lower level criminal cases now.

For example, this summer, in a small office in a nondescript government building in Burlington, Vermont, a seemingly routine meeting was taking place between a 21-year-old man and his probation officer.

"We meet once a month and talk about my life and how I can put my path in the right direction," the man said.

The man was visibly nervous. He was convicted of driving under the influence, and didn't want his name used because once he completes probation and turns 22, the charge will no longer be on his record. He'll be able to get financial aid and return to college, and he'll have more job opportunities.

"If they did send me to the criminal side, the adult side, I would have a record. It would mess up my life for as long as I live," he said.

This is how Vermont now handles some of the criminal cases involving people considered "emerging adults." It's a term coined in a Harvard report to describe those between 18 and 25 years old.

Now, Vermont is going even further with its emerging adults. Next year, it will become the first state to keep most criminal cases in juvenile, rather than adult, court for those up to age 19. Two years later, it goes up to age 20. That means those charged will have access to youth programming and, if incarcerated, they would be confined in youth facilities instead of with adults. The new law does allow exceptions for 12 serious crimes that would be handled in the adult system.

"If they did send me to the criminal side, the adult side, I would have a record. It would mess up my life for as long as I live."

Karen Vastine, with the Vermont Department of Children and Families, is leading the efforts to implement the change.

"For 18 and 19 year olds, they're actually not that different from their 16- and 17-[year-old] counterparts. We know that, generally, emerging adults grow out of impulsive behavior," she says.

Vastine says Vermont staggered raising the age so officials could work on accommodating the change, which is complicated. In the last fiscal year in Vermont, more than 600 criminal cases involved 18- and 19-year-old defendants. Almost half of them either paid fines or went through a diversion program. Vastine is trying to make sure there are enough programs for young offenders, proper screenings of offenders and accountability if they don't comply.

"If all the 18 and 19 year olds who were charged last year were all to hit our system, that would bring it to its knees," Vastine says. "But when we looked at where they ended up, we realized that we need to be smart so we only have the 18 year olds who need the deep-end-of-the-system type services."

A few years ago, Vermont compared outcomes among the 16 and 17 year olds charged with similar offenses in its juvenile versus adult courts. The study found lower recidivism rates among those who went through juvenile court. Vastine expects the same once the age is raised.

"When you're providing services that are developmentally appropriate for this age group — not lumping them in with hardened adult offenders — and when ensuring that the level of intervention meets the level of risk, you tend to have better outcomes," she says.

Vastine knows there will be additional costs, at least to start. She's working on providing an estimate to Vermont lawmakers next month, but says over time the change should lower public safety costs.

"A lot of people concerned about this legislation are thinking, 'Oh my God, juvenile court? They're just getting a pass.' That ain't it."

Erica Marthage

Marshall Pahl, Vermont's chief juvenile defender, says right now the system costs more money and harms human potential. He works with a lot of young offenders and says the current way they're treated doesn't help anyone.

"If you ask some kids, 'Would you rather resolve this case with a $300 fine and then you never have to see anybody again? Or would you rather be in the juvenile system, where you're going to be closely supervised and there's going to be expectations around that?' Even if they recognize that there's a benefit in not having a criminal record in the end, a lot of them would rather pay the fine and be done with it. That's what we've been doing for a long time and it doesn't work," Pahl says.

Many Vermont prosecutors also say the change will likely result in greater oversight of young offenders. Erica Marthage, the Bennington County state's attorney, says raising the age will not mean that young offenders are getting off easy.

"A lot of people concerned about this legislation are thinking, 'Oh my God, juvenile court? They're just getting a pass,' " Marthage says. "That ain't it. At least not in my mind. What I have in mind is, no, now we're going to be holding you accountable."

But some Massachusetts prosecutors don't agree. When lawmakers in the state were working on criminal justice reform in 2017, nine district attorneys signed a letter saying new juvenile brain development science does not warrant raising the age. They also wrote that the change would make young offenders less legally accountable.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe says he does not support raising the age at this point. He wants to see more research on how the system was affected after 2013, when Massachusetts raised its age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18.

(Courtesy Columbia Justice Lab)
Click to enlarge. (Courtesy Columbia Justice Lab)

Research from Columbia University's Justice Lab suggests that arrests of 18- to 20-year-olds in Massachusetts declined 26% between 2014 and 2017, and juvenile court caseloads were down 9% during that time. Nationwide, juvenile arrests appear to be dropping as well. Justice Department numbers show that between 1996 and 2016 the number of arrests of those under the age of 18 dropped 68%.

Lael Chester, who directs the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia's Justice lab, says those types of statistics — and a cultural shift — have prompted several states to look at raising the juvenile court jurisdiction age above 18.

"I mean, I was around 10 years ago in this field and I would have never guessed that we'd be in this moment in the United States," Chester says. "I think there was an aha moment when people realized, 'Oh, there is no magic birthday.' Eighteen year olds don't suddenly become independent mature adults. It's actually quite a long transition. You see things like rates of marriage, steady employment are all happening much later in this generation than past generations. Yet we treat them just like a 30, 40, 50 year old if they allegedly committed an offense. Couldn't we do better?"

"I think there was an aha moment when people realized, 'Oh, there is no magic birthday.' Eighteen year olds don't suddenly become independent mature adults."

Lael Chester

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois are formally considering raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. A Massachusetts task force began meeting in January to look at raising the age above 18.

In 2018, 3,716 emerging adults between the ages of 18–24 appeared in a Massachusetts adult criminal court. Of those, 718 were 18 or 19 years old.

Massachusetts Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, co-chair of the Emerging Adults in the Criminal Justice System Task Force, supports the move.

"In other countries, they don't incarcerate juveniles. In countries other than the U.S., they realize that juveniles should be treated differently," Creem says. "We spend so much money on our prison system. Are we going to spend more money making more prisons or are we going to find a way to keep people out of prison?"

The Massachusetts task force is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature by the end of the year.

This segment aired on October 3, 2019.

Earlier Coverage:

Headshot of Deborah Becker

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



More from WBUR

Listen Live