Delegates at the 2016 Illinois PTA Convention passed a resolution creating a committee to study whether those young adults aged 18 to 21 involved in the justice system should be treated differently from older adults based on the latest scientific research on brain development. At the 2017 Illinois PTA Convention, that study committee presented its report and recommendations. The report presents the three areas of focus that the committee investigated—brain development, age divisions, and what other jurisdictions are doing, both in the United States and overseas.
The report notes that current research into how the brain develops indicates that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that regulates self-control and reasoning—continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s. In addition, a recent study indicated that when faced with a threat or “negative emotional arousal,” those aged 18 to 21 had diminished cognitive performance—essentially reacting like a much younger teenager would. Additional research has shown that the lack of judgement and willingness to take risks continues to approximately age 25. This “maturity gap” is what has had older adults talking about “those crazy kids” and the stupid or dangerous things they do for centuries.
Under the current legal structures in Illinois and the United States, young people become mature, responsible adults on their 18th birthday, and when they commit a crime, they are treated as such. But as the research noted above indicates, turning 18 is not an accurate dividing line between youth and adulthood when it comes to judgement and responsible behavior. When looking at crime and arrest data, approximately 30% of those arrested are between the ages of 18 and 25, with a sharp decrease in first-time arrests after age 25. In addition, the research also indicates that those young adults ages 18 to 25 are much less likely to be arrested again for crimes when diverted away from the standard adult justice system. Finally, much of the literature on how to treat these young adults in the justice system recommends a two-tiered system, treating those ages 18 to 21 more like juveniles while treating those 22 to 25 as emerging adults.
Several states and other countries are beginning to incorporate the latest research into brain development and information drawn from crime statistics to change how they treat young adults in the justice system. In 2016, Vermont passed a law allowing defendants ages 18 to 21 who are not charged with specific serious crimes to apply for youth offender status, allowing them to be tried in the juvenile justice system. California has recently begun a pilot program in five counties that allows those 18 to 21 who have not committed serious crimes to use the education and support services of the juvenile justice system, serve one year of their sentence at a juvenile facility, and have their criminal record expunged if they successfully complete the program. Massachusetts and Connecticut have both had legislation introduced to increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21. Overseas, Italy treats young offenders ages 18 to 21 in the same manner as the new Vermont law. Germany and Sweden also treat those 18 to 21 more like juveniles than as adults.
Conclusions and Recommendations
While the resolution creating this study committee was directed at young adults ages 18 to 21, the committee believes that the science on the topic merits differentiation in consideration from adults up to age 25. The emerging consensus in the justice system is to treat those 18 to 21 more like juveniles, while treating those 22 to 25 as emerging adults. The specifics of how this differentiation is implemented continues to be a work in progress.
The committee made three recommendations, all of which were adopted by the 2017 convention delegates:
- That the Illinois PTA recognizes that youth from the age of 18 to 25 have a different maturity level from that of adults over that age, and that should affect their treatment within the justice system.
- That the Illinois PTA will take positions on legislation as it is introduced to address the age cohort, based on a study of their needs and our policies.
- That the Illinois PTA amend the Legislation Platform of the Illinois PTA, by adding a new Item 11-e. “Support of laws and regulations in our justice system that address the differing needs of youth as they continue to mature from age 18 through and including age 24.”