Efforts to prosecute fewer teenagers in adult court have been making the headlines of late. Last week, the New York Times wrote of recent efforts by states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, no longer prosecuting youth in adult criminal court from the day they turn sixteen. The reasoning behind this shift is based in best practice in juvenile justice reform nationally. There are significant differences between young people and adults in their ability to make decisions, and their capacity to benefit from youth-centric, rehabilitative approaches to juvenile delinquency. The juvenile justice system too often becomes the “system of last resort” for youth that are likely to have experienced poverty, neglect or abuse. For those youth that act out in class, jump turnstiles, or test their amateur artistic skills with spray-paint cans, community-based support or alternatives to incarceration are often a better bet. Putting young people in adult prisons is known to increase their likelihood of recidivism over time.
However, making the shift from prosecuting 16-18 year olds in juvenile court has not been easy. It is far more expensive to prosecute youth in juvenile court, partly due to the fact that juvenile justice systems are currently not equipped to handle a potential growth in the juvenile court-involved population. New York, for example, is still struggling to shift from a more punitive approach to juvenile incarceration to less-expensive community-based programming for youth. The state has been requesting more Family Court judges for years, but caseloads remain high. Currently, the cost of juvenile incarceration in state-run facilities is as high as $240,000 per youth per year. In his recent State of the State address, Governor Cuomo emphasized juvenile justice overhaul as a cornerstone of his efforts to reduce state deficits by closing underutilized facilities and supporting less expensive community-based programs. Yet the Governor has not introduced any proposals on to address the age of criminal responsibility. North Carolina had high hopes for raising the age from 16 to 18 this year, but two proposed bills died in the finance committee in the last two sessions, due to pressures around budget cuts. Making the case for these reforms is challenging due to the initial cost of the change. Amidst budget crises and a general trend to close facilities and adopt less expensive approaches, juvenile justice systems struggle to identify ways to accommodate the corresponding growth that would occur by introducing 16-18 year olds into the juvenile population.
Initial steps to raise the age of criminal responsibility may be slow, but ultimately, these efforts go hand in hand with a more fundamental shift towards less punitive, therapeutic models to address youth offending. The ultimate savings to taxpayers ensured by reducing recidivism long term and providing youth the support they need out of adult prison is surely preferable. In states like New York, where initial steps to close facilities and identify more cost-effective ways of reforming the system are beginning to take shape, careful planning and an assessment of the implication of raising the age must be ongoing. How do you think states should prioritize raising the age in a tough budget climate?