Readers Say

Nearly 650 readers voted: Here’s why they support prosecuting 18- to 20-year-olds as juveniles

“We as a society need to respond to what we know about young people and what we know about what interventions actually work.”

Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts is a maximum security facility housing criminally sentenced males. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A bill introduced to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary last month proposed prosecuting those between 18 and 20 years old as juveniles instead of adults, according to CBS News Boston.

One of the reasons for prosecuting older teenagers and 20-year-olds as juveniles is to lower rates of recidivism, or someone previously prosecuted reoffends, in this age group. 

Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, or CFJJ, a group advocating for justice reform for youth, says services offered by the Department of Youth Services, Massachusetts’ juvenile justice agency, gives young offenders the resources they need to rebuild their lives, even after completing their sentence.


“DYS itself has individuals who work there who are charged with helping a young person transition back into the community, getting them re-enrolled in schools, helping a young person get a license to be able to access things, whereas as often they are still, across the Commonwealth, folks who are reentering from the adult system have all of that on their plate, which can be overwhelming,” Smith said.

Similarly, Joshua Dankoff, director of strategic initiatives, pointed out the importance of continuing education for 18- to 20-year-olds, especially for 18-year-olds still in high school.

“The vast majority of 18-year-olds are still in high school,” Dankoff said. “The impact of a carceral experience on one’s education can be pretty devastating, certainly in the adult [system]. It basically means the school is going to stop.”

Smith also noted how it is more developmentally appropriate for young people to be around those their age while incarcerated, regardless of the line drawn at 18.

“Adolescent brain science has told us that that’s an artificial line, because an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old, their brains are still developing, their frontal lobe is still developing, and they are more similar to their 16- and 17-year-old peers than the 30- and 40-year-olds they end up being housed with in the adult correctional system,” Smith said.


A study published by the American Psychological Association supports this, finding that in a study of cognitive ability, participants between 18 and 21 years old had significant cognitive differences from those 26 or older.

We asked readers if they think 18- to 20-year-olds should be prosecuted as juveniles as opposed to adults. Of the 645 readers who responded, 52% agreed this age group should be treated as juveniles in the justice system.

Should 18, 19 and 20-year-olds be prosecuted as juveniles?
Yes, they should be prosecuted as juveniles
It should be on a case-by-case basis
No, they should be prosecuted as adults

Readers who voted in favor of prosecuting this age group as juveniles, such as reader Daniel C. from Framingham, pointed out how the juvenile justice system is more geared towards rehabilitation.

“I am a former prosecutor and current criminal defense lawyer,” he said. “I have seen firsthand the difference between the juvenile and adult courts. The juvenile court is more geared toward examining why young people break the law and getting them the necessary services to avoid becoming repeat offenders.”

About 42% of readers who responded to the poll, however, said that 18- to 20-year-olds should be prosecuted as adults, citing that if they’re old enough to vote, get married, or served in the armed forces in the eyes of the law, then they’re old enough to be prosecuted as adults. Dankoff echoed Smith’s sentiments that 18 is not the age where one magically becomes an adult, as the brain is still developing.


“Eighteen is sometimes seen as a hard line, but I think the brain science has really shown us it is not a hard line,” he said. “We as a society need to respond to what we know about young people and what we know about what interventions actually work, and we see over and over again that treating young people, 18- to 21-year-olds, as adults in the criminal justice system is not the most effective way to do that.”

Read below to see what readers had to say about potentially prosecuting 18- to 20-year-olds as juveniles.

Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Yes, they should be prosecuted as juveniles

“People in this age cohort are still developing young people and should be treated as such.” — Anonymous, Boston

“Rehabilitation through services such as those provided by DYS [Department of Youth Services] will reduce crime in the long run and improves the chances of success in the future.” — Tim S., Newton

“I am a former prosecutor and current criminal defense lawyer. I have seen firsthand the difference between the juvenile and adult courts. The juvenile court is more geared toward examining why young people break the law and getting them the necessary services to avoid becoming repeat offenders. I’ve also seen the damage adult criminal records can do to young people who have made mistakes and juvenile court records, while still available to police and courts are not publicly available. Additionally the juvenile courts still have the ability to sentence people to adult jail time under our state’s youthful offender law, so extreme violent crimes will still be prosecuted in a serious manner even if they remain in juvenile court. This really is a no downside situation, and will be better for public safety.” — Daniel C., Framingham


“Because brains aren’t fully formed until age 25.” — Hemanth G., Jamaica Plain

“No one is magically an adult on their 18th birthday. We know that the human brain does not fully develop until 25-29 years old. We traumatize young people and stunt their growth by criminalizing them (e.g., putting 18 and 19-year-olds in jails and state prison) instead of intervening. We then lower their chances of fully developing their prefrontal cortex and becoming full adults. All of the existing research on behavioral intervention and intermediate sanctions for young people suggest that they succeed when given opportunities and chances. And they fail and reoffend when harshly punished and incarcerated. Moreover, we simply cannot afford to incarcerate more than we already do in this state.” — CT, Jamaica Plain

“I practice as a juvenile and adult defense attorney. I can see first hand how much 18 to 20-year-olds have in common with the youths under 18. They make the same mistakes and are capable of the same growth, if given the chance. Sometimes it means multiple chances because the Juvenile Court’s enabling statutes set forth that rehabilitative goals are the aim, not the punishment. Too often, adult court is a one and done proposition where leniency is discarded in favor of harsher and harsher consequences for every mistake. Arbitrary age deadlines cutting off Juvenile Court jurisdiction is not based in the available science and is not in line with a state that has the best universities and hospitals in the world. We know that prison is criminogenic for this age cohort, meaning that sending people with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes to prison makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future. That makes us all less safe. It also does extraordinary harm to expose these developing brains to adult incarceration schemas and stunts the potential for long term growth. For all these reasons, and many more, the Juvenile Court’s jurisdiction should be expanded.” — Reyna R., Roxbury


“It is well established that juvenile brains have not developed and matured until they are at least 25 years old. In light of these we need to invest our resources in more youth programs that focus on learning, healing, training and interpersonal skill development. In addition, we need to invest in pretrial diversion programs that address the underlying conditions that lead to transgressions. In other words, we need to implement the recommendations that well respected studies and reports have consistently made for over half a century.” — Jude G., Cambridge

“Prosecution in the juvenile system means that these young people will have more access to resources like education and rehabilitation that will set them up to do better long term. This will make communities safer, and set these young adults up for a healthier life after they’re out of the system.” — Destiny, Boston

It should be on a case-by-case basis

“It really depends on the crime being committed. Juveniles are capable of both heinous and premeditated crimes and petty offenses. It’s not a one size fits all.” — Michelle, Beverly

“If you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to understand the consequences of your actions. That said, if it’s something petty in high school, sure, but if it’s anything 20+, you’re an adult. Violent crime is inexcusable at any age.” — Anonymous

“First time offenses at this age should be handled through the juvenile justice system to allow better opportunities for second chances and rehabilitation.” — Phoebe F., Plymouth


“The human brain is still developing into the 20s and the adult judicial system does young adults more harm than good. I believe the majority of 18-20 year olds should be considered children, with a very limited number who are extremely violent treated as adults. Society would be better served by applying age appropriate sentences and concentrating on improving mental health, job skills, and decision-making skills.” — Roberta G., Framingham

No, they should be prosecuted as adults

“If people of this age have a right to vote, serve in the military, marry and have children, and borrow money they must be treated as adults when they commit a crime.” — Mark L., Wayland

“Because they are adults. They are responsible for their actions. If we are going to say their brains are not yet developed, let’s take away their legal status of driving, smoking, joining the military, living independently, and voting, not just their legal responsibilities.” — John, Abington

“I respect the data and I emphasize with young people in difficult situations. That being said, we are talking about lowering the voting age to 16, but raising the adult offender age to 20? I think young people should be wary of consequences to their actions at 18, they are a legal adult and should be treated as such.” — Bill B., Hopkinton

“Actions have consequences. Your brain may not be fully developed until you are 25 but you are developed enough to vote, drive, enlist, and know right from wrong.” — Brian, South End


“If we are allowing 18-year-olds to vote, then they are adults and should be treated that way when they commit a crime.” — Chris, Bridgewater

“They are no longer under their parents control and are considered adults at 18. If they’re legally responsible at 18 they should be charged for illegal offenses as adults.” — Linda, North Attleboro

“They can vote and serve in combat at 18. They should be held to adult standards for criminal behavior.” — Pearl, Framingham

“Simple. They are adults. Thus they need to conduct themselves as adults or face the consequences like every other adult.” — Chris, South Boston

“Their brain may not be fully formed, but they clearly know right from wrong. If they have the right to vote at 18, then they should be responsible for their actions in other aspects of adulthood. We should not pick and choose when an 18-year-old is an adult.” — Anonymous occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.