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Effective Strategies for Court-Involved Youth: Trends in Maximum Juvenile Justice Custody Age

Friday, July 13, 2012

[Knowledge Brief] Effective Strategies for Court-Involved Youth: Trends in Maximum Juvenile Justice Custody Age

The age at which youth must exit the juvenile justice system, or the maximum juvenile custody age, varies from state to state. In the District of Columbia, the maximum juvenile custody age is 21, meaning that youth who are committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) can remain under DYRS custody until his or her twenty-first birthday. If a DYRS ward commits a new crime after turning age 18, he or she must be processed through the adult justice system for the new offense. In these cases, it is possible for DYRS and the adult system to share joint custody over the young person.

At present, 73% of U.S. states (37 of 51), like the District of Columbia, allow youth to remain in juvenile correctional custody until at least age 21. Fourteen states automatically sever juvenile services prior to age 21, and four of these states set the maximum juvenile custody age at 18. Although the interaction between the adult and juvenile justice systems varies by state, the bulk of laws establishing the maximum juvenile custody age reflect the belief that older adolescents benefit from the type of supports and services provided by the juvenile system.

There are several reasons why remaining in juvenile custody might be appropriate for 18-20 year olds. Research has revealed that most individuals do not achieve full brain development or the skills necessary to successfully transition into adulthood until around age 25. Court-involved youth, many of whom have experienced traumas that impede proper development, often mature at an even slower rate. The juvenile justice system, with its emphasis on rehabilitation and promoting positive development, is often better equipped to provide youth with the skills and supports necessary to become productive adults. Additionally, being placed in adult custody can interrupt the natural process of “aging out” of crime, and studies have found that juveniles who are transferred to the adult system are more likely to recidivate than comparable youth who remain in the juvenile system. Finally, the adult system, with its full range of penalties, remains available for 18-20 year olds who reoffend while in juvenile custody.

At the beginning of FY2012, 18-20 year olds comprised roughly 52% of the committed population at DYRS. Data indicate that these older youth are less likely to be re-convicted or re-arrested than their younger counterparts and that they consume fewer DYRS resources than committed youth under age 18.