The Unfinished Business of Juvenile Justice

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Jason Ziedenberg

Jason Ziedenberg

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas are currently debating proposals that would move 16- or 17-year-olds (or both) out of the adult criminal justice system and into the juvenile court.

This development comes after seven states raised their age of jurisdiction over the past decade. In those states, as a result, half the number of youth who were previously automatically sent to adult courts now appear before a juvenile court judge — an outcome that increases the likelihood that a young person will move past delinquency, and avoid the abuse and harm youth can face in adult facilities.

The governors of New York and North Carolina support raise the age proposals. Now, with a new report issued by the Justice Policy Institute, legislators have evidence that states that made the shift experienced improved public safety and youth-development outcomes, all without overwhelming their juvenile justice systems.

But even with these advances, no state “finishes” the process of building a more effective youth justice system simply by changing a law. Policymaking is an ongoing process of continued improvement and of adopting approaches that will help youth succeed.

For those states that have raised the age, and have managed the change without increasing juvenile corrections costs, the next phase of reform will involve revamping their “reinvestment” approach — and stepping up support to serve youth in the community.

There are a number of reasons why Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts served tens of thousands of more teenagers in their courts and corrections systems without seeing costs spike. The juvenile crime decline that the latest national data says is continuing played a big role in helping these three states absorb new populations of youth without overwhelming the system, which should help persuade New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas to make the shift.

There is another reason why states that have already changed the age of juvenile jurisdiction were able to keep costs in check. They took parallel steps to reduce reliance on the most expensive, least effective ways to address a young person’s behavior.

The most effective youth justice system approaches are focused on serving more youth in the community and reallocating existing resources to support youth and their families at home. By diverting more youth from the courts, improving how probation and aftercare processes work, ramping up treatment for youth in the community if they need it and using strategies to keep youth out of pretrial detention and youth facilities, youth justice systems can manage raising the age of jurisdiction while keeping corrections costs in check.

But unfortunately, just because facilities close it does not mean that all the dollars saved are reinvested in strategies to help youth succeed.

Connecticut and Illinois raised the age for 16- or 17-year-olds (or both) in the past decade, and significantly downsized the deep end of their correctional continuum. But in both states, cuts to children’s health, housing, education and workforce development threaten to undermine efforts to serve youth through the “right door” — through strong schools, mental health treatment if they need it and by organizations staffed by people from young people’s own communities.

As the Justice Policy Institute interviewed stakeholders in the states that led the raise the age trend, we heard that years of tightening budgets might mean cuts to youth-serving systems that could inadvertently undermine the very approaches that can reduce reliance on the most expensive parts of the youth justice continuum.

Youth corrections budgets — even probation and aftercare budgets — are relatively small compared to mental health, education, workforce development, human services and housing. When a young person isn’t deeply involved in the justice system, other child-serving agencies coordinate resources, and harness multiple funding streams to address a young person’s needs in their community.

Taxpayers are already paying for an infrastructure to serve young people in the community. Ideally, stakeholders who fund and run community-based services outside the justice system should coordinate with juvenile justice agencies to provide the support that young people need to make it less likely they will reoffend.

Research has also shown for a decade that youth are less likely to reoffend when they are served by the youth justice system rather than the adult system — something that will save us all money by curbing downstream crime costs.

The community-based approaches that were key to Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts avoiding a spike in costs as they raised the age are less expensive than confinement, but they are not free.

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas should vote to raise the age this year. But after lawmakers celebrate the bill signing, they need to be focused on coordinating and supporting efforts to sustain the community-based approaches designed to address what any young person — justice involved or not — needs to thrive.

Doing so will result in successful implementation of a move to raise the age.

Jason Ziedenberg is the research and policy director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. He is a coauthor of “Raising the Age: Shifting to a More Effective Juvenile Justice System.

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