Commentary: Texas can raise the age and keep youth, communities safe

This piece originally appeared in My Statesman.

Few Texans would want to be judged their entire life based on what they did or who they were when they were 17, an age when most of us were in high school. However, Texas is one of only seven states where all 17- year-olds are placed in the adult justice system. “Raising the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 17-year-olds will presumptively go into the juvenile justice system will help enhance community safety and manage tax dollars effectively.

Recently, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report that shows how other states “raised the age” without breaking the bank, which should give comfort to policymakers in Texas considering this issue. In “Raising the Age: Shifting to a more effective juvenile justice system,” JPI profiles what happened in states that absorbed 16-or-17-year-olds (or both) into their youth justice system from the adult court, and how the change happened without spiking taxpayer costs.

After Illinois and Massachusetts absorbed 17-year-olds into their youth justice system, taxpayer costs were kept in check and juvenile crime continued to fall. While legislators initially feared that raising the age would come with a hefty price tag, juvenile corrections costs were kept in check as these states started serving older teenagers.

In Illinois, justice system stakeholders thought they might need new courtrooms and new attorneys to handle thousands of more youth. Instead, the system managed the change with existing dollars, while also closing three costly youth facilities. In Massachusetts, the costs of raising the age were 37 percent less than what they were estimated to be, and the state closed a secure treatment program for girls last year.

The reason Texans can raise the age and avoid a spike in juvenile corrections costs is that we have been working for a decade to adopt better youth justice policies that are helping improve community safety, and are allowing the state to reallocate dollars from costly facilities to more effective community-based approaches.

Since it can cost Texans $150,000 — or more — to incarcerate a young person for one year, by continuing to shift to practices to keep more youth at home as we raise the age, the youth justice system can reallocate resources to serve more youth in a more cost-effective way.

Raising the age also keeps young people safe, which saves taxpayers money, and gives young people their best shot at safely transitioning to adulthood.

Under the national standards of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), youth under 18 held in adult facilities must be separated from adults for their protection from abuse. Under PREA, governors must assure or certify that adult facilities operated or contracted by the state take costly steps to keep young people separated from adults while a youth is incarcerated, which might mean, spending money retrofitting facilities.

In Massachusetts, Illinois, Louisiana and in Texas, law enforcement and elected officials called for raising the age laws to comply with PREA, keep youth safe, while avoiding facility construction.

Along with keeping young people safe and helping corrections officials curb adult facilities costs, raising the age will also keep Texas communities safer. Research from the Centers on Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Justice show that young people are less likely to re-offend if they are kept out of adult courts, jails, and prisons. Less juvenile crime also means fewer crime victims in Texas, less cost associated with crime, and fewer youth ending up coursing through our courts, jails and prisons. Additionally, 17 year-olds who commit serious felonies such as murder or rape could still be tried as adults.

Texas lawmakers should raise the age, and give young people a chance to become productive adults that will be working, contributing to the tax base, and playing a role in building our communities throughout their lives. Lawmakers can raise the age knowing that their revamped youth justice system will keep communities safer and keep youth safe at the same time, all while keeping costs in check.

Levin is policy director of Right on Crime, as well as the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

This piece originally appeared in My Statesman.

You can follow Marc on Twitter at @MarcALevin.