Weighing opportunity cost

I have student loan debt that’s been looming for years. Every time I think about it, my heart races and my brain calculates how much overtime I’d have to pull to pay off the debt in a year.

I run to my financial planner and she says the same thing: Pay the debt and your anxiety will go away. But, you will have funneled tens of thousands of dollars into paying off something that won’t make you any money and will prevent you from saving. Instead, she said it would be better to pay the debt in small monthly payments over time and put the extra money into investments that earn more interest than what I pay toward my student loans. Over time, I will have earned far more money than what I paid, while still paying off my loans. It’s what she called an “opportunity cost.”

It’s this idea of opportunity cost that has me wondering whether it’s beneficial for the state to continue its practice of sending 17-year-olds charged with a felony to prison with adults.
In this edition’s cover story, Reporter Angela Caputo investigates what happens to minors facing felony charges in Cook County’s judicial system. The outcome isn’t good. As Caputo points out, in most of the cases, these youth end up pleading guilty to the low-level crimes for which they are charged, and hundreds are sentenced to serve their terms in prison with adults.

Should this continue? These youth end up housed with people much older than them. As was the case with the 17-year-old profiled in Caputo’s investigation, the boy was locked up with a man twice his age. If I were a mother, I’d be concerned that my son, who is legally a minor, was locked up night and day with an adult. A 17-year-old is still a minor if they’re the victim of a crime. What if his cell mate was a child sex offender? Are we putting youth in harm’s way? And if something does happen to them, is the government culpable?

Another problem is that teens commit these crimes when they’re young. But because they are stamped with a felony conviction, they’ll forever be locked out of things like serving in the military or qualifying for federal student aid for college if they decide to turn their lives around.

A third question is whether this practice makes financial sense. By permanently attaching a felony record to youth, we limit their ability to get jobs, threatening future local and federal revenue streams that support government and social services.

As with my student loan, I was anxious for my immediate debt to go away. And I imagine that when these youth commit these crimes, we as humans instinctively want them to go away as well. We can lock them up in adult prison and maybe our anxiety will disappear. But looking at the big picture, as my planner would suggest, will we have lost an opportunity?

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