updated 3/21/2007 11:17:51 AM ET 2007-03-21T15:17:51

Young offenders end up in adult jails too often, increasing the odds they will be repeat offenders and move on to more serious crimes, say advocates pushing for changes in how teens are treated by the justice system.

They cite a sharp decrease in the crime rate for violent juvenile offenders during the past decade as another reason for changing the prosecute-them-as-adults approach that some states have adopted.

“The question is how do we maintain public safety without robbing a young person of their future,” said Shay Bilchick, a former prosecutor who is director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. “There is great potential for rehabilitation if we have the right tools.”

Some researchers have estimated that as many as 200,000 people under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult court each year, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a group pushing for additional protections for teens.

The report looked closely at the situation in California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Easily influenced by older inmates
Many teens who are not charged with violent or serious offenses end up in the adult justice system and are sent to adult jails, where they are easily influenced by older inmates, the report said.

About two-thirds of the states consider 18 the age when young people are no long covered by the juvenile justice system. Three states — Connecticut, New York and North Carolina — treat 16-year-olds and 17-year-old as if they were adults rather than juveniles in court. Another 10 states treat anyone 17-and-over as adults in court, according to the campaign.

“We found that the overwhelming majority of young people being tried in adult court are there for minor, nonviolent offenses,” said Liz Ryan, executive director for the Campaign for Youth Justice.

The group wants a 1974 federal law, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, to be renewed this year. Teen advocates will push for additional protections in the law to keep young people out of the adult justice system. And they want states to quit sending teens under age 18 directly into the adult justice system.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y, is chairwoman of a House subcommittee that would initially consider the law’s renewal and considers it a top priority this year.

The law includes protections for teens from prosecution as adults, and McCarthy wants to look for ways to keep juveniles out of adult jails, McCarthy spokesman George Burke said.

Some prosecutors feel that young adults get sufficient protections under current law.

“Juveniles have more than adequate protection under current law,” said James Backstrom, Dakota County attorney in Hastings, Minn., who serves on a panel studying juvenile justice for the National District Attorneys Association. “On balance, state prosecutors do an excellent job” handling young offenders.

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