When it comes to matters of government regulation, age is critical. A couple years ago, the federal government raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. The reasoning for this was clear: 18-year-olds are often impressionable, make short-sighted decisions and are too willing to purchase tobacco products for their underage friends in high school. As a result, the decision to bump up the age was met with little controversy. It was simply an attempt to make the legal age consistent with today’s realities.

Along a similar vein, in recent years, some have suggested increasing the voting age to 21—a notion that I don’t support. Nevertheless, the justification for this proposal is comparable to the tobacco debate. “These children are much more likely to look at politics in a way that is flippant, superficial, and motivated more by a desire to impress their peers than by considered thinking,” the Federalist wrote.

Given that so many individuals apparently feel that 18 to 20-year-olds lack the cognitive development to make rational decisions, it is baffling that Georgia is one of only three states that automatically treats all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Yet if Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-23) has her way, that may soon change. She introduced HB 272, which has been making its way through the legislature. If passed, it would increase the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 in most cases—bringing it in line with the rest of the country.

Like the effort to increase the smoking age, the push to increase the age of adult criminal responsibility shouldn’t be controversial. First of all, while interviewing Rep. Ballinger, she pointed out, “The vast majority of these ‘criminals’ are kids committing misdemeanors—underage consumption of alcohol, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, etc.” These are largely minor offenses in the eyes of the law.

Second, scientific studies support Rep. Ballinger’s endeavors. Research has proven that at the age of 17, youths’ brains are still developing. This means that they are more likely to act impulsively and aggressively, and they struggle to adequately process the potential consequences of their actions. In time, they will undergo the natural course of cognitive development that most adults take for granted, but until then, they lack a degree of culpability, given that their actions are in large part a byproduct of brain immaturity.

Despite such knowledge, 17-year-olds in Georgia are automatically charged as adults, and as a result, they can be thrown into jail with adults. This places them in harm’s way, which can greatly impact their psychological and physical well-being—leading to lasting damage. Indeed, youths who are incarcerated with adults are the target of physical abuse and sexual violence at disproportionately high rates. Many would have been better served had they been treated as children.

Unfortunately, in Georgia, they are placed in the adult system, which has handed many youths permanent adult criminal records for mistakes they made as children. These records often follow them for the rest of their lives—making it increasingly difficult to obtain gainful employment. In fact, Rep. Ballinger understandably equates this to “giving kids a life sentence of navigating life with a criminal conviction.”

What’s more, Georgia’s current policy feeds high recidivism rates. That’s because when 17-year-olds are thrown into the adult system, they do not have access to programming and counseling designed for their age group. This ensures that they do not always receive the rehabilitative support that they need—sometimes spurring them to recidivate.

In spite of everything that’s known, opposition to raising the age usually boils down to dollars and cents. Opponents frequently assert that the adult justice system is cheaper per capita than the juvenile system. So, they claim, diverting 17-year-olds to the juvenile system will overburden taxpayers, but the cost projections of such a move are almost always overblown because they frequently fail to consider the cost savings of raising the age and the reallocation of resources.

In Connecticut before lawmakers raised the age, the fiscal office claimed that enacting such a model could cost upwards around $100 million. But after they passed the bill, the state’s juvenile justice budget shrunk by some $2 million. Similarly, after New Hampshire increased the age, their budget remained about the same. A Wisconsin study concluded that “for every 1,000 youth returned to the juvenile system there will be $5.8 million in direct savings each year through reduced law enforcement costs, court costs, and losses to victims.”

In the end, Rep. Ballinger’s case for raising the age is simple: “It is so much better for the state—better outcomes for offenders, lower overall costs, and lower recidivism rates. It’s just the right thing to do.”

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