Emily Stahly

On December 1, legislation was prefiled that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old rather than 17 in Missouri. Currently, our state is only one of five where 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as adults no matter the crime. This new legislation would place them in the juvenile justice system unless—due to their history or the nature of the crime—they are certified as an adult by a judge.

Giving judges this discretion should reduce concerns that offenders will be let off the hook too easily. Repeat offenders, or those whose crimes are especially serious, could still be dealt with appropriately. Meanwhile, the juvenile justice system could handle the others, which could benefit both the teens and the state.

One concern about this policy is the cost. Based on the fiscal note for similar legislation introduced during the last legislative session, placing more teens in the juvenile system would cost an additional $6.715 million per year. Dr. David Mitchell, an economics professor from Missouri State University, used an alternative cost calculation in a paper he presented at a recent Raise the Age panel discussion.

He argues that even though the per-person/per-year cost is higher in the juvenile system than in the adult prisons, 17-year-olds sent to adult prison spend more time behind bars, on average, than they would if they were in juvenile detention centers. Thus, the cost savings would be higher for the Department of Corrections than originally estimated and the net burden on the state would be closer to $2.432 million per year. He also points out that this amount is only .008% of the state’s budget.

So the cost of this policy to the state would be less than previously assumed. The benefits, however, could be large according to Dr. Mitchell’s estimates. Based on several factors, there could be long-term economic gains from placing most 17-year-olds in the juvenile system.

First, teens convicted of crimes have better earning potential if they go through the juvenile system. Studies have found that teens who have been in adult prison have a 20 percent lower chance of being employed after they are released and work 25 to 30 percent fewer hours if they do manage to find a job. On the other hand, teens who were convicted of a crime but did not go to an adult prison had almost as good a chance at finding a job as teens who did not commit a crime at all.

Second, there is a large disparity in recidivism rates between the juvenile system and the adult system. In Missouri, the recidivism rate for youthful offenders coming out of the adult prison system is about 67 percent, whereas the rate for those coming out of the juvenile system is 15 percent.

With these two factors in mind, placing most 17-year-olds into the juvenile system could be fiscally beneficial to the state. They would be more likely to have a job and be paying taxes (money gained for the state) after serving their sentences, and less likely to end up back in jail (less money being spent by the state).

It’s impossible to know exactly how much raising the age could save the state, but Dr. Mitchell’s analysis indicates that it would be a worthwhile investment. With such a small upfront cost and  potentially large long term gains for the state—not to mention positive impact on these teens’ lives—shouldn’t Missouri join the vast majority of states with this sensible reform?

About the Author

Emily Stahly

Emily Stahly is an analyst at the Show-Me Institute. She earned her B.A. in politics from Hillsdale College in Michigan and is researching education with the Show-Me Institute.