During next month’s special session on crime, the Legislature will likely consider undoing a key criminal justice reform that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, state Senate President Cameron Henry said this week.
Known as “Raise the Age,” the 2016 law required that Louisiana treat teens under 18 as juveniles for all but the most serious offenses. It was passed in part to protect youth from abuse in adult prisons. Previously, the state automatically arrested and prosecuted 17-year-olds as adults.
But Henry said that if the Legislature does roll back the law, it will have to ensure the state has the resources to implement the changes while following federal and state guidelines for the incarceration of youth. Federal law requires sight and sound separation between incarcerated minors and adults.
One solution could involve creating new facilities for teens aged 17 to 19, Henry said.
“(Raise the Age) seems to have had significant problems in Louisiana, and I think that’s one of the things that is going to be addressed. But again, it’s how you address it,” he said.
Some Republicans have blamed Raise the Age for what they say was a juvenile violent crime spike during the COVID-19 pandemic, though they have not provided evidence to support that notion.
The prospect of undoing the reform worries juvenile justice advocates who say it brought Louisiana in line with other states and was backed by science that suggests youth should be treated differently from adults.
“Think about the difference between yourself as a 17-year-old and yourself as a 25-year-old. They’re totally different people,” said Richard Pittman, the director of juvenile defender services for the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
Pittman did not think lowering the age to 17 would deter teens from committing crimes in the way some people seem to expect, he said, adding that consequences for juveniles can already be quite severe.
Under Louisiana law, juveniles charged with violent crimes such as rape and murder are still tried in adult court.