Raise the Age, But By How Much?

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child in handcuffs

Photo courtesy Syrian Society for Social Development via Flickr

The popularity of Raise-the-Age reforms, which have increased the age at which juvenile offenders can be tried in adult court, illustrates a long-overdue policy shift across the U.S. away from punishment and towards the rehabilitation of young offenders.

Now, some states, like Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont, are attempting to go further, by increasing the age of criminal majority from 18 to 21.

But these policies are not costless exercises, and states should be hesitant before moving in that direction.

Expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system allows more young offenders to benefit from rehabilitation-focused services. Unlike adults, juveniles are usually offered a range of counseling, education and employment services, and do not receive permanent criminal records.

Opponents of rehabilitation-centered sentencing, however, argue that lighter sanctions will lead to higher levels of juvenile offending. This article delves into recent research on the deterrent impact of sanctions on juvenile offending, and discusses why both proponents and opponents must have a voice in the policy debate on juvenile crime.

The data suggest that criminal activity among juveniles is likely to increase in response to raising the age of criminal majority.

Raise-the-age reforms are supported by studies in criminology and economics that compare individuals directly above the age of criminal majority with those just below. By restricting attention close to the age of criminal majority, these studies focus on a sample of adolescents that are identical in all respects, except the severity of sanctions that they face. This exercise helps isolate the impact of sanctions on offending behavior.

The studies show that offending does not decrease as adolescents cross the age of criminal majority. That is, adolescent offenders do not seem to account for, or be deterred by, the severity of sanctions that they will face if they are caught. The usual interpretation is that adolescents are not psychosocially mature enough to be able to account for sanctions when making the decision to commit crime.

However, restricting attention close to the age of criminal majority ignores the process by which criminal opportunities arise. For instance, criminal opportunities may be determined by past behavior, such as previous criminal involvement or the criminal networks one has built up.

It is possible that those who are deterred by the threat of adult sanctions would react well in advance of actually reaching the age threshold. That is, they may desist from crime and remove themselves from criminal networks in anticipation of reaching the age of criminal majority.

For instance, if a juvenile wishes to exit a gang, he may not wait until the day before his 18th birthday to do so.

In a working paper, I take this longer-term approach seriously and show that harsh sanctions can deter juvenile offenders. In effect, previous studies may be focusing on those who are least likely to be deterred by harsh sanctions. The argument is that individuals that surround the age of criminal majority have chosen to maintain their involvement in crime, while those who are deterred have already exited in anticipation of these sanctions.

Consistent with this argument, I show that recent changes to the age of criminal majority in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire led to sizable reactions by age groups well below the majority age. When these states raised the age of criminal majority from 17 to 18, the overall arrest rate for 13- to 17-year-olds increased by over 10 per cent.

Further, this increase was driven by arrests for serious crimes such as homicide, drug and robbery offenses.

The above research shows that juveniles are deterred by the threat of adult-level sanctions. So, was it a good idea for states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to raise their age of criminal majority?

A cost-benefit analysis, though necessarily partial, is a useful tool in answering this question.

On the cost side, the increase in 13- to 17-year-old offending imposed substantial costs on both victims and law enforcement. Furthermore, juvenile incarceration is an expensive proposition, outstripping the costs of adult prison by a factor of two or three. These two costs sum to around $65,000 per 17-year-old that is transferred to the juvenile justice system.

On the benefit side, clearing criminal records can lead to a boost in expected earnings, by around $6,000 a year. This is because 17-year-olds who are transferred to the juvenile justice system do not have a permanent criminal record impeding their search for employment. Additionally, if the juvenile justice system is associated with lower rates of physical and sexual assault, as well as lower recidivism (although a recent study shows otherwise), the argument in support of these policies is strengthened even further.

The takeaway from this cost-benefit analysis is that Raise-the-Age policies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire may be justified by the expected benefits. However, we must not assume that these policies are costless, particularly as states continue to expand the jurisdiction of their juvenile justice systems.

More generally, the debate on whether sanctions can deter juvenile crime is far from closed. Survey evidence suggests that young offenders consciously desist from criminal activity close to the age of criminal majority, driven by the perceived differences in treatment of juvenile and adult criminals. Evidence from countries such as Japan and Uruguay also show that harsher sanctions can deter juvenile crime.

Ashna Arora

Ashna Arora

As state governments grapple with the recent uptick in crime [they must fully understand the effectiveness of each approach within their policy toolkit. Ignoring the effectiveness of sanctions handcuffs governments in an important way.

Sanctions must be considered along with other approaches like behavioral interventions and improved access to employment services to reduce adolescent crime.

Ashna Arora is an economics PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on crime, labor and political economics. You can reach her at https://sites.google.com/site/ashnaarora.

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