Juvenile Crime and Anticipated Punishment

January 01, 2018

Ashna Arora


Recent research suggests that the threat of harsh sanctions does not deter juvenile crime.  This conclusion is based on the finding that criminal behavior decreases only marginally as individuals cross the age of criminal majority, the age at which they are transferred from the juvenile to the more punitive adult criminal justice system. Using a model of criminal capital accumulation, I show theoretically that these small reactions close to the age threshold mask larger responses away from, or in anticipation of, the age threshold. I exploit recent policy variation in the United States to show evidence consistent with this prediction - arrests of 13-16 year olds rise significantly for offenses associated with street gangs, including drug, homicide, robbery, theft, burglary and vandalism offenses, when the age of criminal majority is raised from seventeen to eighteen. In contrast, and consistent with previous work, I find that arrests of 17 year olds do not increase systematically in response. I provide suggestive evidence that this null effect is likely due to a simultaneous increase in under-reporting of crime by 17 year olds when the age of criminal majority is raised to eighteen. Last, I use a back-of-the-envelope calculation to show that for every 17 year old diverted from adult punishment, jurisdictions bore social costs on the order of $65,000 due to the corresponding increase in juvenile offending.  In sum, this paper demonstrates that when criminal capital accumulates, juveniles may respond in anticipation of increases in criminal sanctions, and accounting for these anticipatory responses can overturn the conclusion that harsh sanctions do not deter juvenile crime.

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