Issues / Juvenile and Young Adult Issues

The number of juveniles and young adults in our justice system has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, as has juvenile crime, but challenges remain. Elected prosecutors can be leaders in keeping our young people out of the criminal justice system. They can divert young people from the criminal justice system, promote strategies and policies that help youth receive trauma-informed mental health services, encourage participation in drug and alcohol treatment, work with schools that are seeking productive and non-punitive solutions to students facing challenges, and improve coordination with local child welfare systems.

How Investing in Children Promotes Public Safety for All

MAY 2024 – The U.S. criminal legal system has failed effectively to address the unique challenges faced by children and teenagers for decades, devastating countless lives in the process. In the second video of our “Reform Makes Us Safer” series, elected prosecutors and youth justice experts explain why we must treat kids as kids and invest in their success – not their punishment – to achieve healthier and safer communities.

“All science, all psychological evidence, all medical evidence, points clearly that a child’s brain is still developing. The more we recognize that kids are kids, the better outcomes we will have.”
– Pima County (Tucson), AZ Attorney Laura Conover

Information and Resources

Lessons Learned from Germany: Promoting Developmentally Appropriate and Rehabilitative Youth and Young Adult Justice

JUNE 2022 – Unlike in much of the United States, the German justice system responds to crimes committed by young people in ways that are developmentally appropriate, center on rehabilitation, and resort to incarceration only in limited circumstances and when absolutely necessary. Our issue brief explores what we can learn from the German juvenile justice system and provides a roadmap for elected prosecutors to enact reforms that will ensure the American criminal legal system treats children like children.

“Sending a young person into adult prison is a very serious decision that can have lifelong implications. In 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about the science of cognitive development and now it’s informing our case law and our practice.”
– King County (Seattle), WA Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg

Youth Interrogation: Key Principles and Policy Recommendations

JAN. 27, 2022 – Without proper protections, interrogations of children can have serious and harmful ramifications, including coerced and false confessions, wrongful convictions, trauma to young people, and inadmissible evidence obtained through improper interrogations. This FJP white paper outlines relevant research, emerging reforms, and best practices regarding the interrogation of children, as well as guidance and a model policy for law enforcement, prosecutors, and policymakers to use in putting these principles and recommendations into practice. For more, read the release on the white paper.

“America is the sole democratic country that allows children to be questioned by police without counsel and that permits police to use deception during interrogations. It’s long past time for the U.S. to catch up with the world and ensure that the rights of all children are safeguarded.”
– Norman L. Reimer, Global CEO of Fair Trials

FJP, NJDC, and NCJFCJ Release Joint Statement on Need for Specialization of Professionals in Juvenile Court and Resource Guide on JJ Practice & Language

APRIL 27, 2021 – FJP joined the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in a joint statement underscoring the importance of specialization, training, and experience for judges, prosecutors, and defenders assigned to the all-important juvenile delinquency practice area, so they can better address the needs and ensure the success of young people. FJP, NJDC, and NCJFCJ also jointly issued a new guide, Seeing What’s Underneath: A Resource for Understanding Behavior & Using Language in Juvenile Court, which provides best practices for understanding behavior of, and using appropriate language with, young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. For more, read the joint statement, resource guide, and release.

“The juvenile legal system can be extremely complex, and young people deserve specialized professionals who recognize their potential for growth and change.”

Fast Facts on Youth Justice

DEC. 2020 – Youth crime rates have been steadily dropping for decades and are at their lowest levels since 1980. FJP’s new resource, Fast Facts on Youth Justice,” highlights key information that can guide elected prosecutors, justice system leaders, and policymakers as we address how to improve outcomes and better attend to the needs of young people who come in contact with the criminal legal system.

“We’ve tried arresting and prosecuting kids for just about everything, including minor, nonviolent first-time offenses. It simply hasn’t worked.”
–13th Judicial Circuit, FL State Attorney Andrew Warren

COVID-19 and Youth Justice Issues

AUG. 2020 – No children belong in prison – especially during a pandemic. Conditions were poor in youth correctional facilities prior to the onset of the coronavirus virus, but now young people behind bars face additional trauma, medical risk, and dangerous isolation. While significant progress has been made in reducing the number of children who are incarcerated, far too many children remain locked up. Prosecutors have a mission to promote safe and healthy communities, and that includes protecting children who come into contact with the criminal legal system. Read more about what District Attorneys have done and can do to protect young people in our latest “Issue at a Glance” brief.

This is a tremendous waste of human potential… We need to invest in the beginning of this pipeline, as opposed to its end.
– Satana Deberry, Durham County, NC District Attorney

A New Vision for Youth Justice: Ending Extreme Sentences for Children

JULY 2020 – As the public conversation creates a new vision for public safety, criminal justice leaders have the opportunity to once and for all address one of America’s most shameful practices: the imposition of life-without-parole and decades-long sentences for young people. Key findings of two national polls conducted by Data For Progress indicate that a majority of voters across the political spectrum understand that young people have the capacity to change, and want the justice system to rehabilitate young people, rather than imprison them for life. For more read the report on this recent polling and call for change.

“Fundamentally, we have a system that has believed for a very long time that people are unchanging, that we know how bad you are when you do a bad thing. Well you’re not. Science says…PEOPLE CHANGE.”
– Larry Krasner, Philadelphia District Attorney

FJP Young Adult Justice Brief

JAN. 2019 – Young adults are a distinct developmental group with unique needs and challenges and the period from 18 to 24 is a critical window of opportunity for lasting change that shouldn’t be squandered. This FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief offers models of reform from across the country and recommendations to help prosecutors implement proven, compassionate approaches that give young people the support they need to be productive members of our communities.

FJP Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice Brief

SEPT. 2017 – Drawing on research findings that show trauma and toxic stress harm juvenile and young adult brain development, this FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief offers recommendations for incorporating trauma-informed practices into a prosecutor’s office. Tools for prosecutors include changing office practices to avoid re-traumatization of youth, partnering with treatment service providers, and reducing secondary traumatic stress for office staff.

Speaking Out

Gov. Youngkin’s criminal justice reform veto spree puts politics over public safety

APRIL 9, 2024 – Last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed reforms that would have brought Virginia’s criminal legal system in line with most states and other parts of the world. Perhaps most concerning was the veto of a bill that would have restricted prosecutors from pursuing charges for kids under the age of 11 and allowed judges to provide services and support to children without involving them in the juvenile justice system. The bill would have aligned Virginia with most states and other parts of the world which recognize that criminalizing children 10 and under makes no sense as a public safety measure. In USA Today, Arlington County & City of Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky explain how the vetoed bills align with best practices and would have improved public safety and community wellbeing.

“As law enforcement professionals and parents, we find it unfathomable that anyone believes criminally prosecuting a child in elementary school is beneficial. A child who can barely read needs treatment, not incarceration, and there are countless ways to address accountability and also get that child the necessary support to thrive and grow without involving a courtroom or prosecutor.”

Juvenile court fees and costs are invisible shackles that tether children to a broken system

AUG. 14, 2023 – Across the country, far too many children passing through juvenile court systems are burdened with myriad fines, fees, and other costs without any regard for their ability to pay – often forcing youth and their families into desperate situations that cause irreparable harm and increase the likelihood of recidivism. In an op-ed in The Imprint, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Executive Director Joey Orduña Hastings, and Gault Center Executive Director Mary Ann Scali explain why policymakers must take action to eliminate the financial demands imposed on children and families by the criminal legal system.

“We need more lawmakers to recognize that the assessment of court costs and fees perpetuates cycles of poverty, discrimination and punishment, which in turn degrade communities. We need them to stand up and protect young people and their futures, because communities thrive when children thrive.”

Courts have ruled that sentencing kids to die in prison is cruel and unusual. Now they’re reconsidering when adulthood starts.

AUG. 19, 2022 – A few court decisions in recent years have recognized that many of the justifications for treating juveniles differently than adults in the criminal legal system should also apply to “emerging adults” in their late teens and early-to-mid twenties. At this age, their brains are still developing, making them more impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure but also more likely to grow and change. In a Marketwatch op-ed, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and Research and Policy Associate Rebecca Blair explain why it’s essential that our justice system reconsider when adulthood starts.

“[W]e have to decide which matters more: retribution and vengeance or healing and prevention. We can keep choosing the former, but after so many decades on that road, we know where it will take us…the U.S. prison system’s revolving door will just keep turning.”

What the U.S. Can Learn from Germany on Youth Justice

JUNE 16, 2022 – The United States is the only country in the world to condemn children to life without parole, and in many states, there is no minimum age for the prosecution of kids. In comparison, Germany’s justice system treats children like children, focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment. In this op-ed in Marketwatch, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky explains why we should be following Germany’s lead in how our legal system treats children.

“The U.S. system is driven by a punitive starting point. The German approach, in contrast, prioritizes rehabilitation and human dignity.”

Children deserve protections that too many aren’t getting in the US justice system

MARCH 8, 2022 – In the United States, children have few, if any, protections during interrogations, which has led to numerous false confessions that landed innocent teenagers behind bars for decades. In an op-ed in USA Today, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and Fair Trials Global CEO Norman L. Reimer discuss how policymakers, prosecutors, and law enforcement can take a stand to safeguard young people during questioning and align our practices with international standards.

“Our children deserve to be treated like children. And our communities deserve protections that embrace international human rights standards. Flawed processes that produce false confessions must be reformed.”

FJP Testimony to the D.C. Council in Support of the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act

OCT. 7, 2021 – FJP testified before the D.C. Council in support of the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act, which would end the direct filing of children into adult court. Automatically charging children as adults is harmful to adolescent development, puts them at risk of trauma, and makes reentry more challenging, without providing any benefits to public safety. For more, read our full testimony.

“Public safety is simply not improved by treating children as adults. Unnecessary justice system involvement inhibits the normal maturation process and prevents young people from aging out of criminal behavior.”

Youth Justice Needs Specialized Training of Judges, Lawyers, Court Employees, and Courtroom Language that Doesn’t Demean

JUNE 7, 2021 – The way that adults and institutions respond to young people can have a tremendous impact on their short and long-term development, but too often young people who become involved in the court system are perceived, labeled and treated in ways that hinder, rather than support, their growth and development. In this JJIE op-ed, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and NJDC Executive Director Mary Ann Scali discuss the importance of specialization and training within juvenile and family court systems, the need for use of language that avoids stigmatizing and is sensitive to the trauma of development of young people, and how professionals in these spaces can support youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

“Too often, juvenile and family courts in the United States are used as training grounds for new judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. This has long-lasting consequences, as untrained or inexperienced professional staff can saddle young people with punishments that cause lasting harm and result in missed opportunities.”

L.A. and S.F. have it right: No children should be prosecuted as adults

DEC. 27, 2020 – Every state in the U.S. still allows the prosecution of children as adults, despite evidence that it does not make communities any safer and actually leads to higher recidivism rates compared to youth-focused systems. As of 2018, more than 4,000 children were locked in adult prisons or jails on any given night. In this op-ed in the San Franscisco Chronicle, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and Campaign for Youth Justice CEO Marcy Mistrett share why ending the practice of prosecuting children as adults is so critical and how elected prosecutors can be leading voices for change.

“Brain science research tells us…young peoples’ brains aren’t fully formed. Indeed, the vast majority of youth who come in contact with the criminal legal system — including those who commit serious crimes — will mature…and outgrow this behavior.”

Policymakers, Time To End Juvenile Life Sentencing

OCT. 12, 2020 – America is the only country in the world to condemn its children to die behind bars through juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, with an estimated 2,500 people still serving life sentences imposed for grievous mistakes they made as children. In this op-ed in Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, Loudoun County, VA Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, and Ingham County, MI Prosecutor Carol Sieman argue that it’s time to abolish juvenile life without parole – once and for all.

“As this country faces a reckoning over a racist history that continues to drive mass incarceration, there are few more disheartening examples of policies we must end. And Americans welcome that change.”

Youth Prisons Are Ineffective and Should Have Closed Long Before the Coronavirus Hit

AUG. 13, 2020 – In this op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Gladys Carrión, former commissioner of youth justice services for New York State and City and co-chair of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky discuss efforts in California to close state-operated youth prisons and instead provide community-based responses and services for young people. Locking children in prison is inhumane, unjust, and ultimately harms public safety. Children deserve support and second chances close to home – and the dramatic reduction in incarceration in response to COVID-19 shows how the end of youth prisons is in sight.

“In this moment, there is ample incentive to close these giant monuments to failure…Now is the time to heed the collective call from experts to chart a better pathway forward for our youth, as well as our communities.”

COVID-19 and the Youth Justice System

JULY 2020 – Treating kids like kids must be our fundamental starting point for rethinking youth justice, and prisons should have no place in our reimagining of that system. Conditions and outcomes in youth correctional facilities were poor even prior to the onset of the coronavirus virus, but now young people behind bars face additional trauma, medical risk, and dangerous isolation that is detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing. As COVID-19 continues to spread in correctional facilities across the country and stretches budgets thin, we must ask ourselves, why we are continuing to lock children away in facilities that are costly and ineffective when better alternatives exist. In this video, experts and advocates discuss why these facilities must be shut down, once and for all.

Over 70 Prosecutors and Youth Correctional Administrators Advocate for Closing Youth Prisons

JULY 30, 2020 – The United States has long been the global leader in youth incarceration, locking up young people at a far higher rate than other industrialized nations, resulting in further trauma and fraying family and social ties, rather than improving children’s lives. By any measure, the United States’ overuse of incarceration for youth is ineffective, inefficient and inhumane. More than 70 elected prosecutors, youth correctional administrators and law enforcement leaders called for the closure of all youth prisons in the country in a joint statement with Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice. Read the release and statement.

As professionals charged with promoting the public’s safety and well-being, rehabilitating young people and seeking justice, the time has come for us to speak out and oppose the continued operation of these facilities.”

Elected Prosecutors Call for Relief for Individuals Sentenced to Life Without Parole as Children

FEB. 20, 2020 – In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence children to life without parole and required an avenue for relief for people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. In accordance with this precedent, many states have implemented policies that provide for review of juvenile life sentences, offering a pathway to release and a second chance. Missouri, however, has instituted a system that imposes substantial and improper impediments to parole, in direct contravention of Supreme Court decisions and the due process rights of individuals who received lifetime sentences as juveniles. That’s nearly 60 criminal justice leaders, including 30 current elected prosecutors from across the country, filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit challenging the Missouri parole board’s process. For more, read the press release and brief.

“Missouri has purposefully instituted a policy that is…a denial of fundamental rights that harms individuals and, ultimately, community safety by eroding trust in the integrity of the system.”
– Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney

Criminal Justice Leaders Criticize Detention Conditions of Unaccompanied Minors

JAN. 13, 2020 – All children in detention need – and are constitutionally entitled to – trauma-informed care. Yet, a Virginia district court ruled that providing such care to unaccompanied immigrant children was merely an aspirational goal rather than a necessity dictated by law. That’s why 57 criminal justice leaders from across the country and the disAbility Law Center of Virginia filed an amicus curiae brief in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the brief, amici argue that denying such care would be deeply harmful to children in detention, erode trust in the justice system and harm public safety. For more on this important and timely issue, read the press release and full brief.

“When there is a credible claim of abuse and harm to a child, as is in this case, all arms of the government should engage in a swift response to end the immediate action and to ensure the termination of any systemic practices. The lower court’s dismissal of this case is inconsistent with the facts and the law and sends a message that some groups are less worthy of protection against harm.”
– Buta Biberaj, Commonwealth’s Attorney, LoudoUn County, VA

Massachusetts Prosecutors Urge Policymakers to Raise the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction

JUNE 27, 2019 – As communities increasingly push for new approaches to youth justice, Massachusetts District Attorneys Andrea Harrington (Berkshire County), Rachael Rollins (Suffolk County), and David Sullivan (Franklin/Hampshire County) called upon state policymakers to build on the progress of past reforms and raise the age at which youth can be charged as juveniles from 18 to 21. Noting extensive research, proven approaches from other countries such as Germany, and concerning racial disparities, these elected prosecutors offered their support for moving toward a strategy that improves outcomes and equity for emerging adults, while also promoting public safety. Read the release.

“[T]he juvenile justice system provides a better pathway forward by looking at youth more holistically in the context of their family, school and community.”
– Andrea Harrington, District Attorney, Berkshire County, MA

“Germany’s Better Path on Emerging-adults”

JUNE 12, 2019 – Shifting the focus of the justice system from harsh punishment to prevention and rehabilitation makes communities safer, and no population is more critical to this effort than our young people. In a Boston Globe op-ed, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky discuss the lessons Germany offers about how to rethink our approach to young adult justice and the importance of models and strategies grounded in compassion and equity.

“Almost 20 years into the 21st century, it is time for Massachusetts — and this nation — to treat its young people with the compassion that Germany embraced in the middle of the last century.”

Legal Experts Rally Behind California Law to Keep More Kids Out of the Adult Justice System

FEB. 2019 – Over 100 legal scholars from 18 law schools in California joined in a white paper supporting the constitutionality of a new state law that prevents children below the age of 16 from being prosecuted or sentenced in the adult criminal system. As the white paper argues, these sensible reforms are not only constitutional, but also based on what over two decades of brain development research has demonstrated. Children aged 14 and 15 are kids and should be treated as such – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the best way to promote long term public safety.

“Keeping youth in the juvenile justice system means safer communities.”

“Science—and the Law—Says Don’t Try Juveniles as Adults”

FEB. 12, 2019 – Recognition of youth development and young people’s tremendous capacity for change is a simple starting point that has failed to be consistently applied for children whose lives are touched by the criminal justice system. Harsh punitive practices deny far too many children the opportunity for rehabilitation and in the long run undermine public safety. In a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, former East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis and former Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Gurwitz weigh in on California’s important juvenile justice reforms that prevent youth below the age of 16 from being prosecuted in the adult justice system.

“Treat kids like kids. It’s not only good common sense, but good public policy.”

Why Are We Sentencing Juveniles To Die In Prison? The Supreme Court Dropped the Ball.”

JULY 9, 2018 – In this op-ed in USA Today, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University Shay Bilchik and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky discuss the need for prosecutors to embrace the latest research on children and young adults who come into contact with the justice system and implement fair, evidence-based, and compassionate policies that give young people a second chance.

“Our Work to Reform the Juvenile Justice System Is Not Yet Complete”

AUG. 3, 2017 – District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and Campaign for Youth Justice Chief Executive Officer Marcy Mistrett recount recent reductions in juvenile crime and incarceration rates driven by the implementation of smart-on-crime strategies and also identify the many areas where changes are still needed. Read more here.

Examples of Innovation

“Hillsborough to Expand Civil Citation Program for Juveniles”

OCT. 8, 2017 – 13th Judicial Circuit (Tampa, FL) Florida State Attorney Andrew Warren introduced a civil citation diversion program for juveniles with misdemeanor offenses. Read more here.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann Creates Juvenile Unit

FEB. 28, 2017 – Denver (CO) District Attorney Beth McCann announced a new Juvenile Unit as part of a broader focus on juvenile issues and diversion programs. Juvenile Unit deputies will have three-year assignments and the chief deputy will have a five-year assignment in an effort to bring about continuity and leadership in this important area. Read more here.