A dose of common sense in criminal justice

Changing the rules on how we try 17-year-olds is not only reasonable, but has financial benefits

The Legislature is considering whether 17-year-olds should always be tried as adults or whether the system should have some discretion. It is reasonable and commonsense reform to adopt a system, like 40 other states, that allows 17-year-olds to be tried as adults if warranted, but does not require it. The proposal, House Bill 1624, is a policy that makes good sense but is also of huge financial benefit.

Current state law puts all 17-year-olds in the adult prison system regardless of maturity or severity of crime. Whether that’s a good idea or not, it will soon become very expensive. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act will require incarcerated 17-year-olds to be kept separately from adults and undergo different rehabilitation programs. Apparently, experience has taught us that 17-year-olds jailed with adults are at significantly greater risk of prison rape and other forms of abuse.

County jails and state prisons will have to be reconstructed. The counties have estimated their cost at $3 million to $10 million. The state isn’t sure how much it will cost them, but let’s just say it’ll be a lot. Those costs will be avoided if we merely manage 17-year-old offenders the way 40 other states do.

Although the court decides in individual cases, there is a presumption in favor of trying as an adult in the most series cases like murder, kidnapping and aggravated felonious sexual assault. However, the changes will not require every 17-year-old, regardless of the severity of his or her crime or immaturity, to be treated as if he or she were a 35-year-old career felon.

Most of us would agree that in most cases and for most crimes, a 17-year-old is more likely to be effectively punished and rehabilitated in a juvenile system with different probation rules and confinement options.

We know that youth treated through the adult prison system are actually 34 percent more likely to commit another crime (recidivism) than those treated in the juvenile justice system.

The reasons should be obvious: The juvenile justice system is designed specifically to deal with adolescents, their education and their rehabilitation. The adult system is less specialized and more focused on punishment. In adult prisons, one of the greatest concerns is the health care of aging, long-term prisoners. In juvenile justice, one of the greatest concerns is education and high school diplomas.

None of this is an argument for turning a blind eye or reducing punishments. We have – quite literally – a captive audience at an early age. It only makes sense to take advantage of circumstances and do what we know works to achieve better outcomes, not just for the individual but for the rest of society that we don’t want affected by future action.

Marc Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and policy director of its Right on Crime initiative. Charlie Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, Concord.

Categories: Opinion