At least one North Carolina legislator is saying the state could save millions of dollars if it would stop prosecuting all 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system.
Only two states – North Carolina and New York – consider everyone as young as 16 to be adults if they commit a crime, no matter the severity or circumstances.
But that might change this year. Legislators and law enforcement officers are campaigning to treat those youthful offenders as juveniles (except for serious crimes), like most of the country already does. Both the liberal N.C. Justice Center and the conservative John Locke Foundation support it. But in recent years, several similar attempts to change the law have failed. So why do supporters think things are different now?
"One of the objections to the bills I had was, obviously, cost," Rep. Duane Hall, a Raleigh Democrat, told the N.C. Courts Commission in December. "But all the studies and all other states have shown that juvenile systems save states literally tens of millions of dollars."
Hall has co-sponsored "Raise The Age" bills in years past and was speaking last month to drum up support for another bill he plans to file this year. Since the legislature is now back in session, we thought it was time to revisit Hall’s claim.
His meaning is clear: He says "all other states" have saved millions, implying North Carolina would, too. But why has cost been a concern in the past? Expanding the juvenile-justice system isn’t free. It’s more personalized to focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment, so the costs per person can sometimes be greater than in the prison system.
Yet there is a wealth of evidence that keeping teens out of adult prisons leads to lower recidivism, which is the term for when someone commits another crime after being released. That lowers the burden on courts and prisons, and society benefits, too – there are fewer crime victims, and people who would have been committing crimes are instead at school or work.
But could those benefits really lead to "literally tens of millions of dollars" in savings, like Hall said?
Spend money to make money
William Lassiter, North Carolina’s head of juvenile justice, said that past reforms to the juvenile-justice system have led to short-term cost increases but long-term savings – to the tune of more than $40 million.
Lassiter pointed to reforms for youth offenders in the late 1990s. He said they were largely responsible for decreasing juvenile infractions from 48,089 in 2006 to 29,542 in 2015 – a nearly 40 percent drop.
"In 2008 our budget was $178 million," he said. "Last year it was $132 million. So already we have saved the taxpayers a significant amount of money."
There’s a large body of evidence that juvenile programs lead to lower recidivism rates than adult programs. Moving teens from adult prisons and into the juvenile system, Lassiter said, would lead to future savings.
"It's an evidence-based decision," Lassiter said.
A study from Princeton University and the Brookings Institute backs up that line of thinking.
"While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to 10 dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons," the study concluded.
NC costs, benefits
In North Carolina specifically, the most recent study on a potential "Raise The Age" law is several years old. In 2009, the N.C. General Assembly created the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force, which hired The Vera Institute of Justice to conduct a cost-benefit study.
It made several key findings about treating 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles. Some back up Hall’s claim; other’s don’t.
The study found it would increase the state’s costs by $49 million per year at the start. That’s a knock against Hall’s claim. But it also found the changes would benefit the state economy (by reducing crime, hospital visits, lost days at work and more) to the tune of $102 million per year due to an expected 10 percent drop in recidivism – certainly a point in Hall’s favor.
Overall, the study reached a favorable conclusion: "These results indicate that the benefits of the plan outweigh the costs and that, from a cost-benefit standpoint, the policy change merits consideration."
North Carolina might receive other benefits from the law as well. A legislative report in 2013 said the change would create 450 jobs. And Lassiter said the state is currently ineligible for potentially millions in public safety grants because it’s noncompliant with federal rules for dealing with teenage offenders.
And Hall said there are also intangible economic benefits to consider.
"Kids in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, all around us, they could do the exact same act and not get the (criminal) record," he said. "And that’s going to make it so much easier for them to get into college or get a job than our kids."
He's also right that other states have seen substantial savings.
A few examples: Connecticut’s juvenile budget decreased $2 million after it passed a "Raise The Age" law. Texas was able to cut $100 million from its prisons – which researchers attributed, in part, to the substantial reduction in recidivism that new juvenile justice reforms were responsible for. University of Arizona researchers found that sending teen drug offenders through special treatment courts rather than the criminal justice system resulted in net benefits of $84,000 per teen. And in Wisconsin, a study found that "for every 1,000 youth returned to the juvenile system there will be $5.8 million in direct savings each year through reduced law enforcement costs, court costs, and losses to victims."
Rep. Duane Hall said that despite concerns over the cost of moving youthful offenders in North Carolina from the adult justice system to the juvenile justice system, the move could save the state "literally tens of millions of dollars."
The state government would actually see increased costs according to one study – although the same study found the economy would reap a net benefit of tens of millions of dollars.
Furthermore, the head of the state’s juvenile justice system said while previous reforms did cost millions to implement, they have since led to fewer youths in the system and corresponding savings of more than $40 million.
Hall is also right that other states have found juvenile justice reforms including taking teenage offenders out of adult prisons do lead to less crime and long-term savings – possibly as much as $10 for every $1 spent on reform. Yet despite all the evidence about long-term savings, there’s also no denying there would be short-term cost increases for state government. For that reason we rate his claim Mostly True.