Once a national leader in criminal justice reform, Georgia is tied for dead last in one justice-related metric. It is one of only three states that automatically treats all 17-year-olds as adults in the justice system—a misguided policy that lawmakers need to reverse.

There have been successive attempts to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Georgia over the past few years, but they have fallen short. Nevertheless, it looks poised to be an important issue in the 2023 legislative session, but approving it could be a difficult slog.

If history is any indicator, opposition will claim that the measure will cost the state a tremendous amount of money—a notion that has been a recurring theme in some of the states that more recently raised the age.

A fiscal note in Connecticut claimed that raising the age would cost an extra $100 million a year. The Massachusetts Juvenile Court Administrative Office asserted that it would cost almost $25 million more. Illinois officials assured lawmakers that the state’s juvenile detention centers would swell by around 35 percent and their budgets would balloon, and New Hampshire policymakers expected that they would need $5.3 million more to account for the reform.

Despite facing these estimates, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Hampshire raised the age to 18, and found that the budgetary concerns were overblown. After enacting the legislation, Connecticut’s juvenile justice budget contracted by $2 million, Massachusetts’ estimated projection was $9 million too high. When accounting for inflation, Illinois’ juvenile justice budget remained virtually unchanged from 2010-2016, and New Hampshire approved the measure without increased spending.

In the short-term, these states discovered that raising the age had relatively little impact on the size of state budgets—although some relocation of current resources may be needed in Georgia’s case. But in the long-term, there could be many benefits.

The adult justice system isn’t designed for youths. The programming and experience is far different, and the juvenile system is tailored specifically for youths, which reduces re-offense rates and saves taxpayer money in the process.

A Wisconsin study estimated that “for every 1,000 youth[s] 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.” Similarly, Politifact reported that for every dollar invested in raising the age, the return on investment could be as high as $10.

Pegging the exact costs and benefits in Georgia is a tough proposition, but by drawing on other states’ experiences, there would likely be little impact on Georgia’s proposed $32.5 billion state budget in the short-term, especially because recent data shows that we aren’t talking about a massive number of potentially impacted individuals.

In 2018, a mere 6,661 17-year-olds were arrested in Georgia—only 5 percent of whom were implicated in violent crimes. This pales in comparison to the total number of individuals who officers arrest each year. Moreover, to date, there are only 42 17-year-olds incarcerated in Georgia’s adult prisons.

If Georgia’s raise the age proposal mirrors prior ones, then it seems likely that the currently incarcerated 17-year-olds would remain in adult prison and those who commit violent crimes would continue to be treated as adults. That’s because raising the age doesn’t mean that youths cannot be tried, sentenced and punished in the adult system.

There are other legal mechanisms that allow that, and it can be done on a case-by-case basis rather than using a one-size-fits-all dragnet that affects all 17-year-old suspects and harms public safety in the process. After all, adult prison can turn non-violent youths into repeat offenders.

In large part, raising the age is intended to aid youths accused of minor crimes. It ensures they receive the rehabilitative care they need; prevents them from having a permanent mark on their record for crimes committed as juveniles; and institutes a system that recognizes that the parts of our brains responsible for controlling impulsive behavior and calculating potential consequences of actions aren’t fully developed in teenagers.

If Georgia wants to rid itself of the embarrassing distinction of being dead last and promote good policy, lawmakers should raise the age of adult responsibility, but they should still be mindful of how it is implemented. A reallocation of resources to the juvenile system from the adult system will almost certainly be necessary, and legislators need to be careful to ensure that this policy doesn’t overburden local governments.

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