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


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-old offenders 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 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,” the Institute 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.

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 allow the state to reallocate dollars from costly facilities to more effective community-based approaches.

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

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

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 reoffend 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 who 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 and the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.



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