A little noticed provision has been put forward in the Obama administration’s budget that deserves attention and support: Smart on Juvenile Justice.  One of the main focuses of this program is to assist states in reducing youth incarceration and investing in alternatives to incarceration.

Congress should appropriate the $30 million requested for Smart on Juvenile Justice and here’s why:

It’s an opportunity to expand bipartisan reforms in the states.


A handful of states representing all regions of the country, including New York, Ohio, Illinois, California, Texas and the District of Columbia, led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and governors, have taken action to proactively reduce youth incarceration. These states have placed limits on who can be incarcerated, invested in community-based alternatives, created financial incentives to direct investments from incarceration, and closed youth prisons.

The recent Council of State Governments report, Closer to Home, on Texas’ reforms shows that while almost every state experienced a decrease in youth incarceration, Texas' youth incarceration rate dropped by more than twice the rate of other states. 

If Texas can achieve these results, save taxpayers millions, and have safer communities, other states can too. Smart on Juvenile Justice could help more states move in this direction.

It can help states to achieve a greater return on investment, and lead to reduced federal prison spending.

States spend an average of $241 per day or $88,000 per year to place a youth adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile justice system into a youth prison or out-of-home placement. Some states spend $150,000 or more for some placements. Annually, it costs states approximately $5 billion per year.  Incarcerated youth are 60% more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

By contrast, community-based, non-residential alternatives to incarceration are $75 per day and they work. In a recent report, Safely Home, the report found that more than 8 out of 10 youth remained arrest free and 9 out-of-10 were at home after completing their community-based program, at a fraction of what they would have spent to incarcerate these youth.  The findings highlight how high-need youth have been safely and successfully supported in their homes with the help of intensive community-based programs such as the Youth Advocate Program, inc.


Since the vast majority 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.

With support from Smart on Juvenile Justice, states could create a continuum of care of community-based, non-residential alternatives to incarceration for youth in the community that does not rely on incarceration.

It’s not just common sense, but the science tells us so.

There is a rich body of research on adolescent development and effective programs that effectively reduce juvenile delinquency. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report cataloging all of the research.

The public is onboard too.

Recent public opinion polling shows that the public strongly favors rehabilitation and treatment approaches, such as counseling, education, treatment, restitution and community service, over incarceration. The public also strongly favors involving youths' families in treatment, keeping youth close to home, and ensuring youth are connected with their families.

Finally, it is an opportunity to abandon a flawed approach.

Youth prisons are the signature feature of state juvenile justice systems. The largest chunk of state juvenile justice spending is on youth prisons, an approach that came into existence more than a hundred years ago and it

disproportionately impacts youth of color. According to the Haywood Burns Institute, 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.

The bottom line is that Smart on Juvenile Justice would support states in abandoning an expensive, bloated and flawed approach that doesn’t work and isn’t fair and in investing in communities to hold youth accountable and help them realize the consequences of their actions without resorting to incarceration.

Ryan is president and CEO of the Youth First! Initiative to end the incarceration of youth in youth prisons and invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration. She welcomes readers’ comments. Follow her on Twitter at @LizRyanYJ.