RI Repeals Law making 17-Year-Olds Adults for Criminal Offenses

This summer, Rhode Island passed legislation that changed the legal status of 17-year-olds. As of July 1st, all criminal charges for 17-year-olds were handled in adult court, with the potential for sentences in adult prison. Reactions were mixed-and powerful.

According to sources, 17-year-old students convicted of certain offenses were unable to receive financial aid for educational purposes, because of state and national laws concerning drug crimes. But, had they been tried as minors, their convictions would have had no effect on their educational status.

The New York Times reports that Rhode Island’s Attorney General found the law silly and unnecessary, since state law already allowed for minors to be tried as adults if their crimes were particularly heinous or if they had a criminal history.

And children’s-rights groups apparently expressed outrage, claiming that the law was an example of terrible public policy, and that it did not achieve any of its goals.

Last week, Rhode Island’s legislature voted to repeal that law, sources report, which may make you wonder why it was passed in the first place.

Rhode Island has a budget deficit of about $450 million, according to the Times, and allowing 17-year-old criminals to enter the adult criminal justice system seemed like a good way to save money. In theory, the state would have saved $59,000 a year for each 17-year-old sent to adult prison instead of a juvenile facility.

The per-capita costs of maintaining a juvenile facility are significantly greater than those of a normal prison. But, allegedly because of worries about the safety of inmates so young, judges who sent 17-year-olds to prison had them stay in maximum security facilities.

Maximum security units actually cost $6,000 more per person per year than juvenile facilities, so the new policy ended up costing more than the old. But that wasn’t the only problem with trying 17-year-olds as adults.

Because the RI law only allowed for 17-year-olds to be considered adults in criminal justice matters, they were still considered minors for all other issues, the Times reports. This means that they were unable to sign valid contracts-including plea bargains and bail documents-without a guardian present.

Basically, the law didn’t cover enough ground to prove effective in the long run.

But the move doesn’t eliminate the possibility for a juvenile to be tried as an adult altogether. In Virginia, a lawyer is attempting to try a 14-year-old charged with shooting a man in the face as an adult, according to SWVAToday.com. In Pennsylvania, another lawyer is attempting the same with a 15-year-old defendant.

As Rhode Island’s AG noted, the ability to try minors as adults is probably best reserved for determination on a case-by-case basis.

The repeal of the Rhode Island law was reportedly widely welcomed, even though it contained no retroactivity clause. Sources indicate that the state’s public defender hopes for an addition of retroactivity to the repeal when the legislature reconvenes next year.

That way, all the 17-year-olds who were convicted as adults under a law that lasted only four months would be considered juveniles on their official records.

Reports suggest that Rhode Island’s move follows a current trend: three of the ten states that currently consider 17-year-olds adults for criminal defense purposes are considering moving the age of majority back up to 18.