Thursday, November 10, 2016

Crime by 17-year olds plummeting; should they be charged as adults?

The House Research Organization's Kellie Dworaczyk has produced a useful research brief on the issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17-18 years old, a move which would make it easier for state and local lockups to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Texas is one of seven states which doesn't treat the 18th birthday as the threshold of adulthood, as is the case under federal law. Six states have increased the age of responsibility in the last several years.

When the raise-the-age (RTA) issue was first raised, concerns were raised that the volume of offenders would swamp the juvenile system. But the numbers, especially regarding incarceration, are lower than I'd thought. In 2015, Texas cops arrested 22,065 17-year olds for all offenses combined. There were 8,066 people aged 17-20 who were on probation for an offense committed when they were 17, so clearly the overwhelming majority of those arrests are for very low level offenses. Just 46 17-year olds were housed in TDCJ as of Aug. 31st.

Among arguments in favor of the change: "about 44 percent of arrests of 17-year-olds were for theft, marijuana possession, drunkenness, and liquor law violations." And "The offenses and needs of 17-year-olds are similar to those of other teenagers in the juvenile system."

From a normative perspective, perhaps the best reason for the change is to match the law to public perceptions. Because of media and popular culture, nearly everyone including 17-year olds themselves who're not actually, personally involved in the justice system already believe the age of criminal culpability is 18, and most of those 22k arrested in 2015 (and their parents) were no doubt surprised to learn otherwise. Where possible, the law should match popular expectations because, when they conflict, kids absorb culture all the time and none of them have read the criminal statutes.

Statistics are not gathered - but IMO should be - about 17-year olds housed in adult county jails. "At a March 2014 hearing of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, the Office of Court Administration reported the estimated number of 17-year-olds in local jails on a typical day was 2,868 to 3,119. Most were in jail for misdemeanors. "

The cost estimated for raising the age in Texas, according to a fiscal note prepared in 2015 by the Legislative Budget Board, would be small at first but rise to almost $170 million over five years.

But that only considers costs to state government, which largely finances the juvenile justice system. It did not take into account possible financial benefits. According to HRO, "A 2012 report from the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs estimated that raising the age of jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system in Texas would result in $88.9 million in net benefits for each cohort of 17-year-olds. This takes into account costs and savings to taxpayers and the fiscal benefits resulting from better outcomes for youths and reduced victimization."

There was also speculation that the cost estimate may be overstated. "Costs of raising the age could be less than some estimates. Arrests of 17-year-olds have been dropping for years, with 46,173 arrested in 2008 and 22,065 arrested in 2015." Fewer than half as many 17 year olds were arrested in 2015 as 2008?! That's a remarkable stat. Even Grits hadn't realized the crime drop among youth had been so significant.

The paper discussed briefly the confluence of the RTA issue and the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Raising the age would help reduce costs to local jails and the state to comply with federal standards under PREA. Texas counties are incurring significant costs to try to meet the sight and sound separation standards. They report dedicating entire floors to 17-year-olds, which means leaving beds empty on those floors and having to move older offenders around a jail to meet recreation or medical needs of 17-year-olds. Counties also could incur costs if noncompliance with PREA were raised in a lawsuit against them. One large county is considering moving 17-year-olds from its jail to a facility hours away to comply with PREA
However, the report hinted at hidden costs to counties not included in the state-level fiscal note:
some estimates indicate the average first-year cost for eight counties would have been $2.2 million. Bexar County estimated an annual cost of between $8.2 million and $8.5 million to implement the change. Harris County estimated $50.1 million in the first full year of implementation and $18.2 million to $19.9 million annually thereafter. The Harris County costs included a new juvenile detention center
Here's why I don't buy those numbers: Why would Harris County need a new juvenile detention center if, when currently prosecuting these kids under adult law, only 46 of them are even locked up in TDCJ statewide in the first place? That rings false to me.

I agree RTA would cause counties to incur costs, but here's the rub: PREA will cause them to incur costs, anyway. Either one of two possible policy choices would cost counties. If the age of criminal culpability is left the same, adult county jails will have to undergo modifications to segregate 17 year olds in ways they haven't in the past. If RTA passes, juvenile systems will incur additional costs (even if IMO the Harris County numbers are inflated).

So pointing to juvie detention costs as a reason not to pass RTA ignores two questions: 1) Might renovating adult facilities cost even more? And 2) with the rest of the country moving toward an age of culpability of 18, should we sink costs into renovations to accommodate the old age regime when the long-term trend is clearly the other direction? Don't we risk having locals invest twice if, a few years down the line, the vicissitudes of fate and history end up forcing the RTA change, anyway? The tradeoffs involved in that choice weren't made as clear in the report as Grits might have preferred.

For my part, I'd rather Texas deal with the PREA issues once and be done with it, passing RTA so that Texas laws and regs better line up with the federal requirements, which treat 17-year olds as juveniles. From a managerial standpoint, it's cleaner, more efficient, and makes more sense. It would also have the added benefit of protecting those youthful arrests from future disclosure, making it easier for those kids to get a job, housing, credit, etc., down the line.

The cost makes this a tougher sell during a legislative session focused on budget cutting. But it's a pay-me-now or pay-me-later kind of deal.


Anonymous said...

In this report arguments are made for both sides of the fence. Realistically though the county juvenile departments that have had budgets slashed in recent years by the state and already conforming to the legislative mandates to keep more and more locally, this will just add another financial burden. Look at the over-commitments to the TJJD state facilities right now, see the trend upward?? Due largely to cuts in funding. So throw an additional population into the mix and see what happens. Open back up beds in the state juvenile facilities cause they will be filled. In a legislative year that has purse strings drawn tight and where the focus will be on fixing the CPS disaster I can't see funding being available for the RTA movement to gain the adequate funding that will be necessary to make this transition. Focus on front end prevention programs. Look at regional programs that will help prevent young adults 17-19 from getting caught up in the system. Dropping 17 year olds into a facility that could house a 10 year old at the same time??? tell me where the greater risk potential is here.

Anonymous said...

Well THE BILL was filed on Monday. No provisions for funding in it so KILL IT.
Without a funding mechanism attached there can be no support for this because of the fiscal impact to county departments and the state agency.