The High Cost of Convicting Teens as Adults

The policy of trying 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders as adults in criminal court has a damaging effect on the lifetime earnings potential of nearly 1,000 teenaged New Yorkers each year—costing them an estimated, cumulative total of between $50 million and $60 million in lost income over the course of their lives.
A Child Welfare Watch analysis demonstrates that the policy of trying 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent felony and misdemeanor offenders in adult criminal court has a high cost in foregone wages for each annual cohort of 16- and 17-year-olds that passes through the adult criminal courts, and also costs the government unknown millions in lost taxes.
The Watch reached its estimate using a method similar to that applied by researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice when they performed a 2011 cost-benefit analysis for a North Carolina state legislature task force. At the time, North Carolina was considering a legislative change that would have shifted cases of 16- and 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent crime to the state’s juvenile system.
Our analysis did not approach the full scope of the North Carolina study. Instead, we adapted one particular component—the cost of the current policy in lost earnings potential for young people tried in adult court who end up with a permanent criminal record. The authors of the North Carolina analysis calculated the loss in wages over a lifetime, finding that the average net present value of the earning differential between people with a record and those without totals $61,691 per person.

In New York State in 2010, there were a total of 2,063 young men and women aged 16 and 17 who ended up with a permanent criminal record following the disposition of a felony or misdemeanor in criminal court. About 40 percent of these, or 837 cases, were originally brought into the system on violent felony charges. We subtracted those 837 cases from our analysis, because under pending state legislation proposed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, young people arrested for violent felonies would not be handled any differently than they are today.
This leaves 1,226 cases of 16- and 17-year-olds in New York State who ended up with a permanent criminal record following charges of a nonviolent felony or a misdemeanor. Based on historical state data, we made an educated guess that between one-fifth and one-third of these young people will eventually end up with a new criminal conviction at some point in their adult lives. We subtracted them from the analysis as well.
As a result, we concluded that an estimated 818 to 981 young people in New York State are added each year to the long list of men and women who would never have had a permanent criminal record if New York State treated 16- and 17-year-olds the same way nearly every other state does. If the initiative currently before the state legislature becomes law, young people in their position in the future will have their criminal records cleared or sealed.
While for the purpose of this analysis people likely to reoffend were not included, it is worth noting that the recidivism rate is influenced by factors such as employment. If having a conviction record makes it more difficult to get a job, we can predict that the difficulty of gaining employment will be associated with with an increase in recidivism.
The Vera Institute authors of the North Carolina study made other valuable points. For example, in a reformed system, 16- and 17-year-olds would be more likely to receive mental health treatment and vocational programs that would help them succeed in the job market and in life more generally. Based on a survey of recent literature from the federal Centers for Disease Control and other sources, the authors judged that handling young nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile courts rather than the adult criminal system would lead to a 10 percent reduction in recidivism.
A caveat: Our analysis is intended simply to give some sense of concrete scale to the problem. We have not attempted anything like a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. And the wage estimate is based on national data, not state-specific or city-specific numbers. As a result, it is entirely possible that we are vastly underestimating the lifetime wages that may be lost as a result of current policy.

The post above is reprinted with permission from Child Welfare Watch, a blog from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Andrew White is Director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and Lecturer at Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. He is a writer on social welfare, child and family services, New York City Politics and Government and the Political Dynamics of Urban Neighborhoods. The Center for New York City Affairs produces applied research on public policies that seek to support families, strengthen neighborhoods and reduce urban poverty. At Milano, White teaches graduate courses on politics, government, the news media, social change and criminal justice policy. He is the cofounder and editor of Child Welfare Watch and founder of the Center for an Urban Future. Previously, he was editor of City Limits magazine and executive director of City Limits Community Information Services (later City Futures, Inc.). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, the Daily News, El Diario/La Prensa, the American Prospect and elsewhere.

Updated: February 08 2018