By Della Hasselle | The Gambit

In many ways, 17-year-old Carlos Wilson is trying hard to mature into a responsible adult. He has a job, he says, and a one-year old son whom he calls “his pride and joy.”

But he’s constantly reminded that he’s not yet of age to do some adult things. He pays taxes, for instance, but cannot vote to help determine how that money will be spent. And last year, he was unable to sign his own son’s birth certificate, because he was too young.

He also can’t serve on a jury, join the army or buy beer or cigarettes.

Yet if Wilson were to get arrested, he would be sent to an adult lockup, even if charged with a minor offense. That’s because Louisiana is only one of nine states in the country that prosecutes 17-year-olds as if they are adults.

“We as 17-year-olds deserve clarity,” said Wilson, a senior at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. “Are we adults, or are we still children?”

Wilson has been part of a steering committee for his school that for the past year has been researching the possibility of raising the age in Louisiana for criminal infractions from 17 to 18.

On Wednesday, Wilson traveled with about 300 youth from Lafayette and New Orleans to present his findings during a rally on the steps of the state capitol, and to ask that legislators stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

As part of the event, Wilson was among several speakers who urged the passing of a new bill being introduced this legislative session that may pave the way for that change to happen.  Sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, the proposed law is called Raise the Age Louisiana Act of 2016, and it has the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“It’s been 108 years since Louisiana reviewed the age of which individuals are treated as adults in the purpose of criminal prosecution,” Edwards said at the rally, which attracted hundreds of adult supporters to the state capitol, along with the youth.

Although it would automatically change the age a teen is considered an adult in the justice system, there are some things the proposed bill would not do. The bill would not affect the district attorney’s ability to transfer youth to adult court for serious offenses, or “when the situation warrants it,” Edwards said.

In Louisiana, teenagers aged 15 or older can be automatically transferred into adult court for allegations of murder, aggravated kidnapping or first-degree rape.

This can happen if a juvenile court judge finds probable cause for arrest, or if a grand jury returns an indictment in any of those charges.

Other teen offenders can be subject to something called “discretionary transfer,” meaning that district attorneys can send them to adult jail when they are accused of felonies such as armed robbery, attempted murder, second-degree rape and aggravated battery. The youth can also be transferred for second offenses of certain crimes, including distribution of drugs.

Even 14-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults for allegations of murder, aggravated kidnapping, first-degree rape and armed robbery, if a juvenile judge decides it’s appropriate.

In Louisiana, however, the vast majority of 17-year-olds who go through the adult system — about 90 percent of the roughly 6,000 arrested every year — are charged with nonviolent offenses.

“Louisiana is the incarceration capital in our country. We know this. We are way behind in a lot of things. Let’s not be the last in the nation once again.” — Gov. John Bel Edwards

On Wednesday, Edwards said that since even arrests for minor infractions are public records, they “often impede” the ability for youth to finish education and get a job post-arrest – an obstruction that in turn hampers the state’s economy.

Moreover, Edwards said, of all nine states that treat 17-year-olds as adults, all have legislation pending to change that particular policy.

“Louisiana is the incarceration capital in our country. We know this. We are way behind in a lot of things,” Edwards said. “Let’s not be the last in the nation once again. Let’s not be at the top of this bad list any longer than is necessary.”pantai kuta bali

The bill, which is still several steps away from becoming law, has attracted few outspoken opponents since being introduced. Pete Adams, a member of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, objected, but he declined to comment during a Senate Judiciary Committee B hearing on Tuesday as he was in the process of working on negotiations with Morrell, he said.

The Senate committee is slated to vote on the bill the week of April 11, pending resolution of those negotiations, according to Chairman Sen. Gary Smith.

Legislative work done last year raised the groundwork for the Raise the Age Act, when lawmakers commissioned a study about the feasibility and potential benefits of moving 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system.

Rep. Walt Leger III, D–New Orleans authorized the study. The Institute for Public Health and Justice at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health was tasked with producing the findings.

On Tuesday, researcher Dr. Stephen Phillippi said the study showed Louisiana should “strongly consider” raising the age.

He pointed to data coming from Connecticut, which voted to raise the age for adult prosecution for 16-year-olds in 2010, and then again from 17-year-olds in 2012. In the process, the state saved up to $58 million.

Phillippi also said that transferring youth to the juvenile court wouldn’t be burdensome on that system, as LSU predicts only about 67 youth on any given day may would up in secure care, versus the 20 that may end up in need of non-secure residential treatment and the 294 a day that may require probation under community supervision.

Furthermore, the LSU study found that adult court hearings for youth take about 390 days on average — compared to the 135-day-maximum mandated by state statutes for juvenile court, before reaching disposition.

“Study after study has shown that penalty is not in keeping with the developmentally appropriate response,” Phillippi said about prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

Phillippi isn’t the only expert who says elongated stays in adult prisons are bad for teens. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, juveniles held in adult jails are three times more likely to be arrested again.

And last May, local experts convened before New Orleans City Council to raise awareness about the danger youth face in Orleans Parish Prison in particular, which over the years had become notorious for pervasive violence, sexual assault and even inmate deaths.

A 2014 report published by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights found that teens housed in OPP are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those held in a juvenile facility, and that youth are frequently beaten and sexually abused.

And because of mandates required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which says local sheriffs cannot house a 17-year-old in the same cell with adults, youth in jails across Louisiana are frequently held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, according to the network Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition.

On Wednesday, several members of the Youth Justice Coalition praised the involvement of local students who had dedicated the past year to learning more the effects of adult prosecution on 17-year-olds, with one teacher calling it “civics in action.”

The lesson was not lost on Jasmine Jeff, another Sci Academy senior who headed the steering committee to support the Raise the Age Act.

“We are here because this issue matters deeply to us,” Jeff said at Wednesday’s rally. “And guess what? I’m 18 now. And I can vote.”

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