The United States’ reliance on incarceration starts with young offenders in the form of juvenile detention. This is a system for those under 18 that costs taxpayers millions, takes away educational opportunities and fails to steer youth away from criminal behavior in later life.
Juvenile detention centers
A juvenile detention center is a secure prison or jail for minors under the age of 18 that are awaiting court hearings and/or placement in long-term care facilities and programs. Juveniles go through a separate court system which sentences or commits juveniles to a certain program or facility.
On any given day, there are more than 90,000 youth in juvenile justice facilities across the country. The United States imprisons children at seven times the rate of Great Britain and 18 times the rate of France. About 28 percent of youth in these facilities are being detained pre-adjudication or predisposition, and 70 percent were sentenced to facilities post-disposition.
Most youth are put in these facilities for nonviolent offenses, including drugs (8.6 percent), technical violations (13.3 percent) and status offenses (6.6 percent); offenses that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.
How much do juvenile detention centers cost?
The American Correctional Association estimates that, on average, it costs states around $88,000 annually for every youth in a juvenile facility. In total, states spend an average of $7.1 million per day locking up youth in residential facilities.
However, some studies suggest that there are other, deeper costs associated with juvenile incarceration. A Justice Policy study examined the cost of juveniles losing educational opportunities, the costs of juvenile confinement potentially leading to incarceration later in life and the cost of sexual assault of youth while confined. In total, these costs added up to an additional $8 billion to $21 billion per year.
Do juvenile detention centers work?
Juvenile incarceration has mixed results. According to one study, juvenile incarceration increases a person’s chances of going to jail again by 22 to 26 percent.
Another study found that young people who go to prison are less likely to graduate high school by as much as 26 percent.
Additionally, it has been found that kids in juvenile detention centers experience sexual assault regularly. The U.S. Department of Justice found that about 10 percent of all detained juveniles experience sexual abuse.
Changes for the better
Ohio implemented a system called RECLAIM that allocates funds to counties for juvenile justice based on delinquency levels and population. Between the system’s implementation in 1992 and 2009, the number of young people under secure state care in Ohio fell 42 percent. According to the Ohio Department of Youth Services, for every dollar spent on this program, the state saves between $11 and $45 in commitment and processing costs.
Illinois created a program called Redeploy Illinois, which incentivized counties to cut the number of youth they sent to state secure facilities by at least 25 percent. The state agreed to reimburse the counties for what they spent managing the youth locally. In its first three years of implementation, the pilot counties diverted 382 youth from commitment, saving an estimated $18.7 million in costs.
In 2009, New York State closed six youth residential facilities, downsized two and closed three evening reporting centers as part of a program called Re-direct New York. Closing these facilities saved around $16.4 million, which was sent to counties to strengthen alternatives to incarceration.
Pennsylvania, California and Wisconsin have also implemented similar programs. These initiatives have consistently proven to save millions in funds that can be re-directed to provide more alternatives to incarcerating juveniles.
Many states have implemented reform to improve the quality of their juvenile justice systems, and the rest should follow suit. We need to find ways to reform youth early on in their lives rather than set them on the cycle of incarceration before they have even finished high school.
Investing in rehabilitation and education, instead of juvenile detention, has the potential to save every state tens of millions a year.
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