Crain’s NY Op-Ed: Raise the age of criminal responsibility and save taxpayers a bundle

Incarcerating youths in juvenile-detention facilities is expensive, but punishing them as adults costs even more


New York is one of only two states that still sends 16-year-olds to adult prisons. Raising the age of criminal responsibility has been much debated here, with a focus on the public-safety benefits. But the long-term costs of trying youth as adults should be part of the policy discussion as well.

Juvenile detention is expensive. The Justice Policy Institute’s 2014 report “Sticker Stock” estimated the long-term costs of confining youth in juvenile facilities. We factored in the increased likelihood that young people in these centers will commit a new offense in the future; the cost of lost educational opportunities and its implications for young people’s ability to work and pay taxes and their reliance on public assistance; and the greater cost from young people coming into harm’s way when they are confined.

Our conservative estimate: $8 billion to $21 billion for each year nearly 150,000 youth are in juvenile facilities across the country.

While that is a very big number, prosecuting and incarcerating young people in the adult system, as New York does, costs even more.

Research shows that young people are more likely to become productive assets in our communities, rather than economic burdens, when we treat them within the juvenile-justice system, versus the adult system. So while our juvenile system is far from perfect, it does provide youth with far greater opportunity for change than does the adult system.

The research is also clear that whatever negative impact needless confinement has on young people in general, youth who are exposed to the adult system are even more likely to reoffend and to come into harm’s way than young people kept in the juvenile-justice system. After Connecticut policymakers were shown research by the Urban Institute indicating that for every dollar invested in moving young people from the adult system to the juvenile justice system, taxpayers saved $3 in reduced crime and incarceration costs, the state raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18. And as they have seen positive outcomes from this change, Connecticut’s governor has proposed raising the age even further, to 21.

There are steps New York’s policymakers can take right now to get a better return on public-safety investments. By reducing the number of young people needlessly arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated who pose limited risk to public safety, we could free up space in the juvenile system to absorb 16- and 17-year-olds currently in the adult system. These policy changes can be combined with legislation to raise the age in order to free up dollars for a more effective and consistent approach to investing in our vulnerable neighborhoods.

When a young person is incarcerated in New York, we can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their confinement. If we matched policy changes to reduce young people’s overall penetration into the justice system along with raising the age, reserving the justice system only for those youth who pose a risk to public safety, the dollars we save across the whole system could be used to support quality pre-K programs, mentorship programs, drop-out prevention and recovery, job training, healthy homes initiatives, and substance abuse counseling.

This would allow investment in educational and community-based approaches that are proven to get better outcomes for young people and communities at a fraction of the cost. By supporting data-driven solutions aimed at keeping youth in school, providing alternative pathways for those who have dropped out, and connecting youth with job relevant educational content and then to employers, investments can truly have lasting impacts on communities.

Right now, New Yorkers are losing wages, tax revenue and social capital because of a failure to invest effectively in what we know works. The state of New York can raise the age of criminal responsibility, save money and make neighborhoods safer by ”right-sizing” its system and investing in the types of services, support and opportunities that all New Yorkers deserve.

Mark Grovic is a general partner of New Markets Venture Partners and a professor of business at the University of Maryland. Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and was previously a partner for nonprofit philanthropic investment organization Venture Philanthropy Partners.

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