The Louisiana legislature is poised to pass Senate Bill 3, which would lower the age to criminally prosecute children as adults to seventeen. This move will exclude all 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system, no matter what they’re accused of. Issues such as a school-yard fight or shoplifting — while by no means trivial  —  are often a part of normal transient adolescent behavior, or at least they were. 

Louisiana already has a mechanism to transfer children accused of  serious crimes into the adult criminal-justice system. Lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 17 will simply move 17-year-old kids who have committed nonviolent offenses into the adult system, exacerbating poor outcomes for these youth.

Aiden Lesley, child rights researcher at Human Rights for Kids

If SB 3 is passed and signed into law, Louisiana will be criminalizing childhood behaviors that are better dealt with in juvenile court. What sense does it make to send more 17-year-old kids to adult jails, especially in minor cases? Only three other states — Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin — automatically put 17-year-olds in adult settings, which helps to explain why jails and prisons in those states are full of people who have been incarcerated since childhood.

Louisiana is already the most prolific state in the country when it comes to prosecuting and incarcerating children as adults. In a report released last year by Human Rights for Kids, we found that 7.2% of Louisiana’s prison population is incarcerated for offenses committed while they were under the age of 18, higher than any other state in the nation. That’s a rate of 49 people per 100,000 Louisiana residents, stratospherically higher than any other state. 

Louisiana’s place as one of the worst human rights offenders in the nation would sink even further if all 17-year-olds, including the 342 seventeen year olds that were adjudicated delinquent last year, are moved into the adult system.

There are good reasons why children should be treated differently from adults in the justice system. We don’t allow 17-year-olds to participate in government, sign contracts, rent property, or purchase alcohol or tobacco products. 

We also have laws in place to protect them from harm, because we recognize that they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently established guardrails on the criminal penalties that can be levied against children, citing their immaturity and capacity for change as the foundational reason. Research from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicates that children face worse outcomes in the adult system than in a juvenile justice system designed for them. By contrast, they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation if given child-specific services to help guide them down a better path.

Louisiana lawmakers recognized these realities in 2016, passing legislation to phase 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system by 2020. This legislation came in the wake of a study commissioned by the legislature in 2015, which found that youth are not served better in the adult system, and that moving them into the juvenile justice system would not only support public safety in the state — it would save the state millions of dollars due to decreased recidivism and other factors. 

Louisiana has also already seen the poor effects of treating children like adults. Last year, the state moved a contingent of children into the defunct Death Row wing of Angola prison following complaints about safety. The resulting rights abuses committed against the children who were moved there (including solitary confinement, oppressive heat, and inadequate educational services) garnered national attention, a federal lawsuit that demanded their release, and even condemnation from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights during its review of the United States criminal-justice system last year.

The travesties that resulted from moving children into Angola last year illustrated that adult correctional facilities — even separate sections of adult facilities — are no place for Louisiana’s children. This was addressed by former OJJ Deputy Secretary Curtis Nelson, who advocated for a more evidence-based and rehabilitative approach for children last year. 

Senate Bill 3 will not make Louisiana residents safer. Greater resources in research-proven approaches would result in better outcomes for children – and would actually address the complaints regarding juvenile violent crime that the sponsors of SB 3 seek to address.  

Aiden Lesley is the Child Rights Researcher at Human Rights for Kids, a nonprofit focused on the protection and promotion of the human rights of children. For more information on the population of people incarcerated in adult prisons for offenses committed as children, visit