Science shows that the brain continues to change and mature throughout childhood and adolescence. Due to the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and misread or misinterpret social cues, and less likely to think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions. The legislature has recognized this as it has delved into issues related to juvenile justice.
The Legislature passed a bill that prohibits sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences its children to life imprisonment without the possibility of release or parole. No inmates are currently serving such a sentence in Vermont. Nevertheless, this bill recognizes that, because their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders are less culpable and have the unique ability to be rehabilitated. The bill does not guarantee release. Rather, it provides the opportunity for an offender to demonstrate rehabilitation to a parole board. This bill will ensure that Vermont is in compliance with a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. It promotes a common sense policy that protects public safety and recognizes that juvenile offenders are different than adult offenders.
The legislature also passed a bill that aligns juvenile court jurisdiction with brain development research and best practices. Vermont is one of the few states where 16 and 17 year olds may be charged as an adult in Court for any offense, including a misdemeanor. The juvenile jurisdiction bill would result in fewer youth entering the adult criminal system, thus avoiding the long-term consequences of a criminal record. When youth have a public record due to conviction in an adult court, they face collateral consequences such as obstacles to employment, exclusion from the military, and ineligibility for college loans.
Studies have shown that youth are much more amenable to treatment and rehabilitation and, as such, should be treated differently than adults. Studies have also shown that youth incarcerated with adults, or supervised along side adults, have poorer outcomes including higher rates of recidivism.
The bill makes incremental changes in how youth are adjudicated in Vermont. Currently, the Family Division generally has jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings, subject to exceptions, until the child reaches 18. One exception is that prosecutors can bring charges against 16 and 17 year olds in either the Family or the Criminal Court. Also, a 14-17 year old charged with a “Big 12” offense (the 12 worst felonies such as murder, arson causing death, etc.), is brought to Criminal Court. A 10-13 year old charged with such an offense is brought to Family Court, but can be transferred up to the Criminal Court on a prosecutor’s motion.
Under the bill, the graduated changes are as follows:
- Starting in July 2016 10-11 year olds charged with a Big 12 offense can only be charged and adjudicated in the Family Division.
- Starting in January 2017, 16 year olds who commit a misdemeanor or a felony (not Big 12) must be charged in the Family Division. If it is a felony charge, the case may be transferred to the Criminal Division on motion. Misdemeanors shall be adjudicated in the Family Court.
- Starting in January 2018, 17 year olds are treated the same as 16 year olds.
- Starting in July 2018, the bill extends youthful offender status from 17 year olds to 21 year olds.
In addition, the bill directs the Justice Oversight Committee to study the feasibility of raising the age of the juvenile court jurisdiction to 18-20 year olds who are charged with something other than a Big 12 offense.
For years Vermont has subjected too many kids to a lifetime of limitations arising from carrying a criminal record with them through life. The legislature’s actions this biennium should reduce these limitations.