Opinion: Vermont Leads the Way on Juvenile Justice Reform

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By Sen. Dick Sears and Vincent Schiraldi

Vermont recently became the first state in the 119-year history of America’s youth court to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be treated in the juvenile justice system. The goal is to increase public safety and the evidence from research indicates that this approach has the potential to be a game-changer in a field in desperate need of innovation. When the law goes into effect, these emerging adults will have access to youth rehabilitation programs and if incarcerated, be confined in youth facilities instead of mingled with adults in prison. Their crimes will be considered confidential, giving them a second chance to make better choices.

There is a growing recognition across the country that the current justice system’s treatment of emerging adults has failed. Those years are an opportune time to support growth and rehabilitation, but the system automatically treats them the same as 40-year-olds, with poor results. After they experience the harsh realities of adult prisons, youth this age have the highest re-arrest rates of any group.

Recent research has found that emerging adults share many attributes with youth under age 18. Both are more volatile in emotionally charged settings, more susceptible to peer influence, greater risk takers, and less future-oriented. This is especially true of those who have suffered traumatic brain injury, which almost half of young adults in jails have.

Other research has found that there are certain developmental bridges – like obtaining gainful employment and entering into a stable marriage – that help young people mature out of problematic behavior. However, employment and marriage come later for today’s youth than previous generations.

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