As budget-strapped state legislatures seek ways to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and efficiently, a growing number of states are turning to a solution that, until relatively recently, was assumed to be a budget buster: shifting delinquent youth from adult prisons and courts back to the juvenile-justice system, where they belong.
Over the past decade, the number of states that automatically assign 16- or-17-year-olds to the adult criminal-justice system has been cut in half, from 14 to just seven. Efforts to raise the age of jurisdiction to 18 currently appear to be gathering momentum in states like Missouri and Texas, while similar efforts in New York and North Carolina could be particularly fruitful, given that they are among the few that continue to adjudicate most 16-year-olds as adults.
Despite some initial wariness, evidence to date from other states that have absorbed 16- and/or 17-year-olds into their youth-justice systems finds that taxpayer costs were kept in check and rates of juvenile crime continued to fall. A new report out this week from the Justice Policy Institute finds that states like Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts—which had employed strategies to reduce their reliance on expensive youth facilities even before they moved to raise the age—were able to keep juvenile-corrections costs in check as they began to serve older teenagers. Since it can cost more than $100,000 a year to incarcerate a teenager, shifting to practices that keep more youth at home allow youth-justice systems to reallocate resources in more cost-effective ways.
In Illinois, initial concerns that the state would need new courtrooms and attorneys to handle the disposition of thousands of youth cases ultimately evaporated, as the state was able to manage the change with existing resources, while also closing three costly youth facilities. As these states adopted better youth-justice policies and raised the age, they also saw juvenile crime decline more than the national average. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy observed that improvements in his state’s public safety and youth-development outcomes after raising the age helped the state to see less adult crime and imprisonment, saving tens of millions of dollars.
The deep reductions in juvenile crime found by the JPI report echo research from the U.S. Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agencies find young people are less likely to reoffend when they are kept out of adult courts, jails, and prisons. Less juvenile crime also allowed states that raised the age to reduce the number of confined youth.
Some of the costs of keeping minors in adult incarceration facilities stem from the national standards set by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Under PREA, youth below age 18 who are held in adult lockups, jails and prisons must be separated from adults for their protection. Governors must certify that adult facilities have taken what are often costly steps to ensure young people are separated from adults, or risk losing federal grant funds.
The compliance costs associated with PREA proved to be a big part of what motivated states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Louisiana to raise the age. But beyond the dollars and cents, raising the age also helps to keep young people safe and gives them a better shot to transition to adulthood safely. States that are unwilling to enact a rehabilitation-focused approach to youthful offenders face myriad unintended consequences.
As states like New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas examine whether it’s time to change their age-of-jurisdiction laws, lawmakers should consider not only the budgetary concerns, but the best way to give young people a chance to become productive adults who contribute to our communities. The evidence is now in, and it’s clear that raising the age serves to keep our communities safer, to keep youth safe, and to keep costs in check.
Arthur Rizer is a senior fellow and criminal justice policy director at the Washington, DC-based think tank R Street Institute. Marc Schindler is Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. He previously served as Chief of Staff and Interim Director of Washington, DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.