The United States confines more youth in juvenile detention facilities than any other country in the world. On any given night, approximately 70,000 youth are placed in secure confinement, and two-thirds of these youth are being held for nonviolent offenses.
Exhaustive studies have shown that juvenile detention is obsolete and ineffective in the care and treatment of youth offenders, yet we continue to spend exorbitant amounts of taxpayer money to fund these institutions. The average daily cost per child for juvenile detention is $407 – or $148,000 per year – yet there is no real benefit in terms of helping youth transition to adulthood or in promoting public safety. Youth confinement can actually set kids up for future failure.
To spend our tax dollars more efficiently while improving juvenile justice, we can use new research by scholars on what works to reverse delinquent youth behavior. Nonresidential programs known as “community-based alternatives” used to supervise and treat youthful offenders in their own communities have been proven to work at a fraction of the cost of youth detention centers.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, high-quality and cutting-edge reforms that hold youth accountable for their actions have been shown to dramatically lower recidivism rates and lower the number of youths held in detention, with no increase in crime rates. Some models that have proven effective with youth offenders are Multisystemic Therapy, rigorous career prep and vocational training programs such as YouthBuild, intensive youth advocate and mentoring programs, and specialized mental health and substance abuse treatment including wraparound services.
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We need to duplicate community-based programs like these to help troubled youths get their lives on track and become productive citizens. This will save billions in lost opportunity costs because youths placed in detention have their educations interrupted, and a large percentage do not go back to finish high school. As a result, their lifetime job prospects and earnings are affected, which can mean lost tax revenues, higher public assistance use, mental health-related costs and a higher risk of adult incarceration.
According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, for every dollar invested in community-based youth development and prevention efforts, we dramatically reduce delinquency and save taxpayers up to $8 in future costs.
By reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2015, we can be smarter about juvenile reform. The JJDPA has been the single most important piece of bipartisan legislation to safeguard youths involved in the justice system, reduce juvenile crime and delinquency, and increase the safety of families and communities since 1974. It provides critical funding that allows programs at the state and local level to operate.
Federal funding for the JJDPA has dropped by more than 80 percent in the past 10 years, however, severely curbing the ability of states to maintain the act’s core provisions. Reauthroization would strengthen and update the act by incorporating new data on adolescent brain development, on the effectiveness of community-based alternatives and on methods to reduce race and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.
Many young children in the U.S. experience abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty. Without effective intervention, these children struggle and can feel hopeless, which can lead them to crime. The JJDPA will help states provide better alternatives for these youths and their families, a win for everyone.
Being “smarter, not tougher” on crime by focusing on rehabilitation and community-based approaches instead of detention has shown a reduction in juvenile incarceration and spending on juvenile justice in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states – while at the same time seeing an increase in public safety. This is a policy that conservatives and progressives alike can support.
Carole King of Durham is a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Social Work.