Criminal Justice

Too young to take custody of his son, but old enough to be tried as an adult?

Sci Academy senior Carlos Wilson will be speaking from the Capitol stapes as part of Youth Justice Day.

Jed Horne

Sci Academy senior Carlos Wilson will be speaking from the Capitol stapes as part of Youth Justice Day.

Buying a lottery ticket.  Voting.  Serving on a jury.  Joining the military.  To do any of those things you have to be at least 18.  In Louisiana, though, you automatically enter the adult justice system at 17 — even for minor offenses. That needs to change.

The illogic behind this policy hits close to home for me. I am a high school senior of 17 with a one-year-old son who is my pride and joy.  When he was born, I was not able to sign his birth certificate. Too young, I was told. When my son’s mother ran into some legal problems and couldn’t care for him, the judge told me that I was ineligible to file for custody because I was not an “adult”.

In other words, in the eyes of the court, I am not mature enough to take legal responsibility for my son, and yet if I commit a crime, I am a fully grown adult. Well, which is it? Are we adults at 17? Or are we still children?

Through my school, Sci Academy here in New Orleans, I am part of a steering committee of students who have been researching this issue for months. We are in full support of a bill pending in the state Senate and believe you should be, too. SB 324, introduced by state Sen. Jean-Paul “JP” Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, would raise the minimum age for prosecution in Louisiana criminal courts from 17 to 18. Younger than 18, you are still in juvenile court, except for particularly violent crimes.

To those who say the change would cost too much, you’re wrong. Connecticut recently raised the age for adult prosecution from 16 to 18, and wound up saving money. A lot of it: $58 million.

For one thing, prosecuting young people in juvenile rather than adult court lowers the likelihood that they’re just going to commit another crime once they’re released. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of re-offending drops by more than one-third when young people are prosecuted in juvenile court and provided with social services and allowed to continue their education.

The drop-off in re-offending was a factor in Connecticut identifying a juvenile prison as excess capacity. They shut it down. But there’s another reason besides money to raise the age. Putting children in adult prisons is incredibly dangerous for them. Our research group discovered that two out of three young people housed in adult facilities are sexually abused.

Bear in mind that over 90 percent of juveniles who get arrested are arrested for non-violent offenses. But prosecuting them as adults and throwing them into adult prisons has a way of turning them into “hardened criminals.” Forced to spend so much of their time fighting for survival, they’re denied the chance to turn their lives around.

We learned that some juveniles wind up in solitary confinement for 23 to 24 hours a day because, under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), local sheriffs cannot house a 17-year-old in the same cell with 18-year-olds. And then there’s this statistic: 75% of all juvenile deaths in adult jails are suicides. A juvenile in an adult prison is 36 times more likely to commit suicide than one held in a juvenile facility.

When we misbehave in school, or skip detention, the first thing our teachers do (even with seniors!) is call our parents. But at 17 in Louisiana, if you’re arrested no one has to call your parents. How is it that we need our parents to enroll us in school but they do not need to be present before we are tried in criminal court or enrolled in an adult prison?

The “Raise the Age” bill doesn’t mean that a parish DA can’t transfer a 17-year-old to the adult system for violent offenses. SB 324 would level the playing field for all kids. It does not mean that teen crime should be handled lightly. Crime is crime, but it’s unfair to try youths as adults if we can’t vote and serve on juries.

In addition to my colleagues from Sci Academy, our steering committee includes students from Carver Preparatory Academy, Carver Collegiate Academy, Clark Preparatory Academy, Crescent Leadership Academy, Northside High School in Lafayette, and other schools in our region. We’re going to be in Baton Rouge on April 6 lobbying legislators to back Raising the Age. SB 324 already has Gov. John Bel Edwards’ support.

For more information on this issue, visit the Youth Justice Coalition.

Carlos Wilson is a New Orleans native and a senior at Sci Academy. As part of Youth Justice Day, on April 6 at 11 a.m. he will join Gov. John Bel Edwards on the steps of the Capitol in Baton Rouge to advocate for passage of SB 324.

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