LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — At 17, Devin Harris is not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. But when he was accused of trying to use someone else's credit card to buy cigarettes, he swiftly realized that — at least when it comes to the criminal justice system — the state of Louisiana considers him to be an adult.
"The last thing I wanted was to be in the system," said Harris, who was jailed for nine nights in April because his mother could not afford the bond before he entered a pre-trial diversion program. For the teenager, those were long nights. "I called my dad, I ain't talked to my dad in almost two years ... I just needed somebody to talk to," he said.
Louisiana is one of nine states where 17-year-olds are treated as adults when it comes to the criminal justice system. However, that could change amid a time when jurisdictions across the country are re-evaluating get-tough-on-crime policies.
The state Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to include 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system. The measure now goes to the House. The District Attorneys' Association dropped its opposition to the measure when authors agreed to extend the phase-in period.
Proponents of the legislation point to cases like Harris,' where states treat 17-year-olds as kids in many respects — they can't vote, buy cigarettes or lottery tickets, or serve on a jury — but as adults when it comes to crime.
"They are children for just about every other meaningful purpose in society," said Joshua Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.
Perry points to a study done by the LSU Institute for Public Health and Justice which strongly supported the idea of raising the age to 18. Among the reasons cited by the study:
— At 17, adolescent brains are still developing, causing them to "engage in more risky and impulsive behavior."
— Youth processed through the juvenile system had a 34 percent lower recidivism rate than those processed in the adult system.
— Inmates under the age of 18 are more likely to experience sexual abuse from older inmates in prison.
In the adult system, cases can take months or years to resolve whereas juveniles' cases are generally much faster. Parents, who police don't even have to call if a 17-year-old is arrested, are an integral part of the juvenile system. There are more probation officers to oversee juvenile cases and direct communication with schools so they can help keep students on track.
While many people may think of the worst case scenarios like murder or armed robbery, one of the study's authors, Stephen Philippi, said the vast majority of the roughly 6,000 17-year-olds arrested in Louisiana in 2014 were for nonviolent crimes like marijuana possession.
Rob Reardon, who heads the Lafayette parish's corrections division, has been one of the strongest proponents of the change. He says it just doesn't make sense to put 17-year-olds into an adult environment where they'll miss school and get a record for life.
"We've created a perfect system for creating criminals," Reardon said.
There's also a practical concern. Reardon estimates it costs as much as $500,000 annually to house 17-year-olds at the Lafayette jail even though they only have a handful at any one time. The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act requires that 17-year-olds housed in adult facilities be physically separated — called "sight and sound separation" — from their older counterparts to prevent sexual assault. In jails built before the requirement that often means additional staff to monitor a small number of 17-year-olds that take up a lot more space than would be used to house adults.
For those concerned that 17-year-olds accused of heinous crimes would get a free pass, proponents note that district attorneys would still be able to move serious cases into adult court — as they can now with many younger offenders. While mechanisms vary, all states have options for moving younger offenders into the adult system.
This legislation comes at a time when Louisiana is starting to re-evaluate its position as the state with the highest per capita incarceration rate. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, elected last year, has promised to bring down that rate and has made passage of the age legislation a key part of his agenda.
Associated Press writer Megan Trimble in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.
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