Guest Commentary

It’s time to ‘Raise the Age’ in Missouri. It’s a matter of dollars and sense

Putting 17-year-olds through the adult justice system imposes costs on society, and also on the offender.
Putting 17-year-olds through the adult justice system imposes costs on society, and also on the offender. File illustration

The Missouri General Assembly is currently contemplating a bill colloquially known as Raise the Age. This bill would mean that criminal cases against youth who are under the age of 18 would begin in the juvenile court system. 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes could still be certified as adults. Raising the age to 18 would bring Missouri into line with all but four other states.

I recently wrote a report that examined the economic effects of this bill. As everyone knows, people sent to prison often times will continually re-offend upon their release. The recidivism rate for released felons is high for many reasons: the breaking of normal social bonds, a lack of job experience, lack of education, an erosion of “soft skills” (being able to interact with others in the workplace and society in a productive manner), lack of personal maturity and growth opportunities, and social stigma.

These factors combine to make it difficult for people released from prison to be able to successfully reenter society, hold down a job, pay taxes and the like. In this sense, the cost of crime is high indeed.

Crime imposes economic costs on the victims of the crime, on the average citizen who is forced to pay taxes to house, feed, and clothe people in prison — and also on the criminals themselves in reduced future lifetime earnings upon their release. Furthermore, that reduction in the lifetime wages earned by released felons means that they will also pay reduced taxes over the course of their life.

What is true for people entering the prison system at 30, 25 or even 18, is equally true for people entering the prison system at 17. I have spent the past few months studying this problem in great detail in order to determine the economic costs of having a 17-year-old sentenced in the adult courts versus in the juvenile courts. I examined these costs from many different ways and used well cited, peer reviewed journal articles to establish the parameters for my cost estimate. For example, the recidivism rates for youth who are sentenced in the adult prison system are similar to the adult recidivism rate. However, youth sentenced in juvenile courts re-offend upon release at much lower rates.

I also examined the average age earnings profile for a high school graduate who does not commit a crime. This allows one to determine how much the average person will earn in each year of his or her working life to establish a benchmark for comparison to a person who does commit a crime. From this, it is fairly easy to calculate FICA and income taxes paid, as well as sales tax from income that was spent on goods and services. The typical high school graduate can expect to earn approximately $2.432 million in income over the course of a working career, and will pay $741,622 in taxes.

The earnings profile of those sent to prison, though, is very different. Even if one assumes that they do not reoffend, the peer-reviewed literature shows that they are less likely to work. And even if they do find employment, they don’t work as many hours as someone who hasn’t been to prison

This means that these people will earn significantly less than their counterparts who do not go to prison. If we examine the average 17-year-old who only spends a brief amount of time in an adult prison, he or she can expect to earn only $1.2 million over a lifetime and pay around $250,000 in taxes. In other words, society has missed out on just under half a million in taxes that this juvenile could have paid. When combined with the cost of housing him or her in an adult facility, the costs to society tallies to almost $512,000 per criminal.

This is where the benefits to the Raise the Age legislation really begin to show. Although there might be some additional costs in the very short run to support juvenile justice workers and county governments, these additional costs are in essence one-time costs.

By having these juveniles’ cases adjudicated in the juvenile court system, the state of Missouri will be seeing benefits far outstripping costs in the long run.

David M. Mitchell is a professor of economics and the director of the Bureau of Economic Research at Missouri State University.