North Carolina is likely to see millions of dollars in net annual benefits over time, if lawmakers join almost every other state in making the juvenile justice system the default destination for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes. That’s according to Texas-based criminal justice experts who have just issued a newly updated version of a Spotlight report first prepared in 2012 for the John Locke Foundation.

“On the surface, raising the maximum age of jurisdiction for North Carolina’s juvenile justice system can appear to lead to higher costs,” said report co-author Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis. “However, evidence suggests that any short-term cost advantages of keeping 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system are ultimately overwhelmed by higher long-term costs.”

Levin and co-author Jeanette Moll focus special attention on costs in this updated version of their report. They are releasing their findings as state lawmakers consider House Bill 725, which would “raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction” to include 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors.

Smaller caseloads in juvenile probation and lower staff-to-inmate ratios in juvenile lockups help lead to higher short-term costs in the juvenile justice system than in the adult court system, according to the report.

The juvenile system also offers more programming, and juveniles pay lower fees than their adult counterparts. That means the adult justice system appears to cost less in the short term.

“Evidence suggests that some of the same factors that lead to lower short-term costs in the adult justice system — such as larger caseloads and less programming — contribute to higher rates of recidivism and revocations among 16- and 17-year-olds, leading to higher long-term overall costs,” Levin said.

A 2011 study estimated that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for those charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies would generate $52.3 million in net benefits for North Carolina.

“That number factors in the combined perspectives of taxpayers, victims, and young offenders,” Levin said. “These net benefits include savings to taxpayers and reductions in the human costs of crime, such as lost or damaged property, medical costs, and pain and suffering. In addition to avoided costs to victims, the state would benefit from an increased rate of employment and earnings from formerly troubled young people who do not end up saddled with a lifetime adult criminal record.”

North Carolina would not be alone in raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, Levin said. Forty-eight other states have made the change “without significant complications.”

“Some states already have seen significant benefits,” Levin said. “Because Connecticut’s juvenile caseloads grew at a lower-than-expected rate after a similar shift in juvenile jurisdiction, that state spent nearly $12 million less than budgeted in 2010 and 2011. After Illinois raised the juvenile jurisdiction age in 2010, both juvenile crime and overall crime dropped so much that the state was able to close three juvenile lockups because they were no longer needed.”

Recently adopted standards linked to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act also will narrow the cost differential between the juvenile and adult justice systems, Levin said. “These new standards are likely to raise costs in the adult justice system as county jails and state prisons spend more in areas such as staffing, programming, and facilities,” he said. “Even the apparent short-term cost advantages of the adult justice system will diminish.”

In addition to cost factors, Levin continues to tout other potential benefits of shifting most 16- and 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile system, especially the misdemeanor offenders included in H.B. 725.

“North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically send all 16- and 17-year-old defendants to the adult justice system, but concerns about deterrence, repeat offenses, the absence of education or training, and the potential for harm indicate North Carolina should reconsider its existing laws,” Levin said.

Levin and Moll detail each of these concerns in their report. They also document safeguards that would ensure the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders continue to be tried and imprisoned as adults, and recommend a “blended sentencing” mechanism that incorporates both the juvenile and adult systems.

Thirty-seven states set the maximum age of jurisdiction for their juvenile justice systems at 18, while 11 states set the age at 17, according to Levin and Moll’s report. North Carolina and New York are alone in sending all 16-year-olds to the adult system. New York allows for a reconsideration of that initial placement.

Levin and Moll’s research leads them to a clear conclusion. “For the vast majority of 16-and 17-year-old offenders, the appropriate venue to address their offenses is the juvenile justice system,” Levin said. “It’s appropriate for juveniles because it leads to better outcomes. It’s appropriate for North Carolina’s citizens because it creates a safer state for all.”