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What It Means for Black Youth as South Carolina Plans to Raise the Age of Juvenile Offenders from 17 to 18

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South Carolina will join the ranks of other states who keep teenagers in the juvenile justice system until age 18.

According to Think Progress, the South Carolina state legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to raise the age at which minors can be tried as adults from 17 to 18.

The “Raise the Age” bill shot through the state Senate on a vote of 37-0, after the House voted 102-0 earlier this month, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reports. The legislation will now land on the desk of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for her approval. If signed, the legislation will take effect in 2019, the news site reports.

The new bill excludes juveniles convicted of certain violent crimes, however.

So far, 41 other states have committed to increasing the age of juvenile jurisdiction, according to Think Progress. Per The New York Times, Connecticut was victorious in raising the cutoff age from 16 to 18 in 2009. Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Hampshire soon followed suit.

Like South Carolina, legislators in Louisiana, Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin are working to pass laws that would prevent minors from entering the adult penal system. Think Progress reports that Louisiana is the closest to enacting their “Raise the Age” legislation, as the state Senate voted 33-4 in favor of passing the bill. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has vowed to sign the reform if the House votes in favor of the bill as well, the news site states.

“I support this measure because it is simply good public policy,” Edwards wrote in a statement released April 12. “With an eye toward public safety, research shows consistently that the juvenile justice system does a better job at preventing recidivism. That means fewer future crime victims, and less money spent on incarceration down the road.”

Efforts to “Raise the Age” are happening in almost every state, according to JJIE. Based on a growing body of research regarding adolescent brain development, supporters say that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction keeps teenagers in a system that’s more focused on rehabilitation and therapy, the news site reports.

Despite this new step in the right direction, racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile sentencing continue to be an issue.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth reports that 60 percent of people serving life without parole for crimes committed in their youth in the U.S. are African-American, while 29 percent are White and 0.8 percent Native American. The campaign also states that more transfers to the adult prison system results in the increased likelihood that youth of color will be adjudicated in adult court and receive long-term prison sentences.

The JJIE also points out that there are three key differences that comprise “racial-ethnic disparities.” For example, “disparate treatment” refers to the less-favorable treatment youth of color experience compared to others due to factors unrelated to their behavior. “Over-representation” describes the rate at which youth of color are involved in the justice system, while “disproportionate minority contact” is the “the higher rate of involvement of youth of color at a particular decision point in the juvenile justice system.”

It’s hoped that these news efforts to “Raise the Age” will help remedy the stark racial disparities in the sentencing of African-American youth.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the passing of such legislation is an indication that lawmakers are convinced that youth fare much better in a system designed for recovery, the JJIE reports.

“It just shows there’s been a real shift in the debate about how we should treat children,” Berkowitz said.

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