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Do young adults belong in the juvenile justice system?

On Behalf of | Jun 30, 2020 | Youth Court |

Distinguishing the age in which a minor officially becomes an adult is a tricky task. While most states in the U.S. consider the age of legal adulthood – the age of majority – 18 years old, in Mississippi, you’re not an adult in the eyes of the law until you turn 21. However, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction in Mississippi is 17, meaning if you commit a crime after the age of 17, the law will prosecute you as an adult.

But according to science, the age of 18 – and even the age of 21 – isn’t necessarily where adulthood begins. In recent years, neuroscientists have established a critical in-between phase coined “emerging adulthood” in which a young person is more mature than they were in adolescence, but not quite capable of making rational, “adult” decisions.

Defining emerging adults 

The areas of the brain responsible for emotional control are still developing into a person’s mid-20s. Emerging adults can still make deliberate decisions and understand right from wrong, but unlike older adults, they are still often impulsive and susceptible to peer influence. Not surprisingly, it is around the age of 24 that most youthful offenders “age out” of crime.

Unfortunately, by the time they reach their mid-twenties, many emerging adult offenders have already done irreversible damage to their future. An adult criminal record can make it difficult to secure employment or qualify for housing. Some offenders even graduate to more serious crimes after serving time in the adult prison system.

A better shot at rehabilitation

The Emerging Adults in the Criminal Justice System Task Force believes that young offenders would be best served in the juvenile justice system rather than the adult prison system – which focuses more on punishment than reform.

The task force recommends raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18 to 20-year-olds as well as tailoring the adult criminal system for crimes by offenders aged 18 to 24. According to their research, emerging adults are incredibly responsive to rehabilitative programs.

The age in which a person truly becomes an adult is arbitrary. By making room in the juvenile justice system for emerging adults who are still developing, young offenders can get more opportunities to outgrow their mistakes and turn things around.