What is the Real Cost of Trying Teens as Adults?

juvenile-justice-system_empty-jail-cellsThe New York Times reported March 5 that the national trend of trying teens as adults in criminal cases is reversing. Almost all states have raised, or are raising, the age teens are tried as adults. The opposition to this trend argues that it is too costly to try teens as minors.

The generally accepted assumption is that states save money by trying teens in adult criminal court, rather than in juvenile courts. But is this assumption really true in the long run? What is the real cost of trying teens as adults?

Certainly, in the short-term, the more involved and supportive approach of juvenile courts may cost more than criminal courts. Juvenile courts emphasize treatment rather than punishment. That focus can mean that more people are employed in the care and rehabilitation of offenders in juvenile court than in the adult counterpart. 
These costs, however, yield long-term benefits. Youth and society benefit from supportive rehabilitation. And states can make back the money from that initial investment. A recent study by the Vera Institute on the cost of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina found that with an investment of $70.9 million a year to include 16 year olds in juvenile court, the state would accrue “$123.1 million in reoccurring benefits to youth, victims, and taxpayers over the long term.”

Studies like this, which calculate the costs and benefits of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, are extremely helpful to the public debate about juvenile justice. The next piece of the cost puzzle is to have a study that examines the long-term costs of trying teens as adults. This would give us a more accurate comparison of the costs.
Admittedly, such a comparison would only be relevant if we continue to focus on the monetary costs of juvenile justice. If, however, we focus on the real results, the betterment of the person and the community, the calculation is simple. Comprehensive juvenile justice simply works better.

juvenile-justice-system_Sonya-ViajaSonya Ziaja, J.D. is the co-owner of Ziaja Consulting LLC, a California based consulting group. Her interest in youth advocacy stems from her work on law and technology developed as a Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She writes regularly for blogs at LegalMatch and Ziaja Consulting.
She writes regularly for LegalMatch's Law Blog and Ziaja Consulting's blog, "Shark. Laser. Blawg."
Photo at top: misswired.


Updated: February 08 2018