The budget crunch is on, and bean counters are hard at work trying to figure out a way to balance the state’s budget, keep Georgia’s coveted AAA bond rating, and do so without disrupting productivity. This will take a delicate balancing act, and while lawmakers must mull different agency cuts, they also need to consider investments that will result in even greater savings in the long term.
Currently, Georgia lawmakers are considering a measure to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old, which could ultimately save Peach State taxpayers millions of dollars. As it stands, Georgia is one of only three states that still automatically prosecutes 17-year-olds in the adult system. The overwhelming majority of states have moved away from this paradigm for many sound reasons, and Georgia should too.
For starters, it is absurd that the three holdout states, including Georgia, don’t trust 17-year-olds with buying a lottery ticket or opening a checking account, yet they insist on treating them as adults in the criminal system. One of the results of this policy is increased crime. Minors tried in the adult system often do not enjoy the benefit of rehabilitative programming tailored for youth, which is designed to reduce recidivism rates. Rather, these minors are sometimes thrown in prisons with adults and strapped with a permanent adult criminal record — all for mistakes they committed as adolescents. That record — coupled with the lack of youth-oriented programming — makes it less likely they will find gainful employment once they are released, which contributes to an increased likelihood of recidivism.
Opponents of raising the age claim that the reform will cost states untold sums of money by overloading the juvenile system with new defendants and forcing taxpayers to fund pricy juvenile justice programs. Naysayers even attempt to buttress their claims by waving fiscal notes about, which have varied wildly. In fact, New Hampshire officials said raising the age would result in $5.3 million in increased spending; the Massachusetts Juvenile Court Administrative Office claimed that its costs would rise by $24.5 million annually; and Connecticut’s fiscal office estimated that raising the age would cost an additional $100 million a year.
These estimates gave many lawmakers pause. But each of these states raised the age anyway and soon learned that these fiscal notes were overblown. New Hampshire’s budget remained unchanged, Massachusetts’ spending increased in the short term but by a smaller amount than first claimed, and Connecticut’s juvenile justice budget actually shrunk by $2 million.
There are many reasons why fiscal note estimates have missed the mark, ranging from authors not adequately considering a reallocation of resources from the adult to juvenile system to declining juvenile arrest rates. Yet, the point is clear: Fiscal note drafters have frequently claimed that raising the age will cost enormous amounts of money, but that hasn’t been the case in places like Connecticut, Massachusetts or New Hampshire.
Another point that fiscal notes ignore is the long-term impact of raising the age, which promises to save many millions of dollars. A Wisconsin study asserts 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.” North Carolina is expected to save victims and taxpayers around $120 million with its raise-the-age effort, and Politifact even claimed that for every dollar spent on raising the age, states should save $10.
Of course, government programs shouldn’t solely be judged based on their price tag. Officials also have to consider their benefits, like how raising the age of adult criminal responsibility will lead to less crime.
However, during a budget crunch, the costs of reforms weigh heavily on lawmakers’ minds. Thankfully, when it comes to raising the age, there is little cause for concern. In the short term, it will either cost a modest amount or potentially lead to immediate savings. In the long term, it will save Georgians millions while simultaneously making Georgia a safer place to live. Given the facts, the Peach State has nothing to lose and much to gain by raising the age of adult criminal responsibility.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.