Divesting from youth incarceration

Taxpayers, families and kids are paying for a juvenile justice system that incarcerates tens of thousands of youth every year in the United States.

We aren't getting our money's worth and here's why:

States spend an average of $88,000 to place a youth, adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile justice system, into a youth prison or out-of-home placement every year according to the Justice Policy Institute. In 2011, more than 61,000 youth are in youth prisons. Using my back of the envelope math, that means that state taxpayers are paying more than $5 billion annually to lock up youth in youth prisons.

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According to the Pew Center on the States report on youth incarceration, "research has demonstrated that residential placements generally fail to produce better outcomes than alternative sanctions, cost much more, and can actually increase reoffending for certain youth."  While comparisons are difficult to assess because states calculate reoffending rates differently, data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's No Place for Kids report shows that youth incarceration is producing a lot of reoffending and not a lot of rehabilitation.

Over two-thirds of youth in youth prisons, according to the latest U.S. Department of Justice data, are there for offenses such as status offenses (running away, skipping school), technical violations, public order, drug and property offenses. These youth do not pose a risk to public safety and could be more effectively served in the community.  

The Haywood Burns Institute's Unbalanced Justice map shows that African-American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are 1.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. These racial and ethnic disparities are increasing. In Stakeholder Views on the Movement to Reduce Youth Incarceration, produced by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), the report states that, "While the total number of incarcerated youth has declined in many states, the proportion of youth of color among all youth reentering court dispositions grew substantially between 2002 and 2012." 

In Youth Radio's recent expose, Double Charged, families are paying for the daily cost of incarceration as well as other fines and fees. Every state allows, with most requiring, parents to be charged for the cost of their children's incarceration. Parents are assessed incarceration fees for their children even if the facility is poorly run, with abysmal conditions and substandard education.

For example, a recent investigation into the privatization of Florida's youth prisons, Prisons for Profit, illustrates the egregious conditions children are placed in. Yet, Florida law requires parents to pay fees for their children's incarceration even for places such as Thompson Academy which is highlighted in the investigation for its inhumane conditions.

Parents also pay even if contact with their child is limited. Many parents and families do not have regular contact with their children due to distance, travel time and expense to get to the facility, even though the majority of incarcerated youth want to maintain contact with their family, according to national surveys of incarcerated youth.

Not a week goes by without a headline in some newspaper citing abuse in a youth prison. Kids are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as isolation in youth prisons. The Annie E. Casey Foundation's No Place for Kids report states that, "America's juvenile corrections institutions subject confined youth to intolerable levels of violence, abuse and other forms of maltreatment."

Confinement in a youth prison also puts kids further behind in school. In Just Learning, released by the Southern Education Foundation, says that, "The data shows that both state and local juvenile justice systems are failing profoundly in providing adequate, effective education in the south and the nation."

There is a way forward out of this morass.

States such as California, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Texas are leading the way.  These states have placed limits on who can be incarcerated, invested in community-based alternatives, altered the financial incentives away from incarceration, and closed youth prisons. More states need to proactively undertake these kinds of reforms (and not by dumping kids into the adult criminal justice system).

The Obama administration has proposed $20 million in their FY 14 budget and $10 million in their FY 15 budget for a new grant program to assist states in continuing to reduce youth incarceration and redirect funds to community-based alternatives to incarceration. Congress must now act to ensure these crucial funds are appropriated, along with $80 million for states under Title II of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act.

The collection of fees and fines on parents for this flawed system of youth incarceration must cease. States should repeal these laws and instead, engage parents and families in juvenile justice reform efforts such as expanding alternatives to incarceration.

For what its costing taxpayers, families and kids, we can and should do better.

Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. She is the founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization working to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ. For more information, visit the JJDPA Matters Action Center at www.sparkaction.org/jjdpamatters