Dollars and sense: It pays to reduce youth crime


In February, I had the opportunity to urge the House Education and the Workforce Committee to support a juvenile justice strategy that has dramatically reduced re-arrests and saved millions for taxpayers.

As I thought of that testimony afterward, I realized I could summarize a lot of it with one simple phrase: parental and personal responsibility.

I expect that phrase sounds good to conservatives, liberals and pretty much everyone in between. It’s the underlying thought when we see or hear about teens committing crimes and mutter “where are the parents?” or declare that offenders must be “held accountable” for their actions.

{mosads}These themes were central to my testimony about the wisdom of using evidence-based juvenile justice practices that change behaviors and thereby reduce the chances of recidivism. The reason: It’s working.


Anyone who takes a deep and objective look at the data on the programs we’re using in Indiana will see clear results in terms of lowering juvenile crime and saving money.

That’s especially important to everyone concerned about the number of juveniles who re-offend. Studies have shown that if a kid who’s 14 years old or younger becomes a second-time offender, the likelihood of future brushes with the law spikes to 77 percent.

Nationwide, 40 percent of the young people who come before juvenile court will do so at least one more time.

Therapies favored through the legislation I testified in favor of – the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) — put kids on a different course. They begin by engaging the offenders’ families, helping parents and other adult family members or guardians develop skills that will change the youths’ behaviors.

They also stress personal responsibility among youth, and often focus on breaking a generational cycle of lawbreaking that happens when teens follow in the footsteps of family members who have previously gone down the wrong path.

One program we use in Indiana is known as Functional Family Therapy, which shows parents how to encourage and reinforce positive behaviors in response to pressures that lead kids to act out and commit minor offenses.

The therapy also ensures youth know they will be held accountable for their behavior, and helps them develop coping skills and respond in a positive way to stressful situations.

Under the guidance of highly experienced and licensed therapists, a typical course runs between eight and 30 hours. Randomized control trials have shown this therapy can cut youth recidivism by 50 percent.

Kids who have committed more serious offenses participate in a more intensive course known as Multisystemic Therapy, which provides up to 60 hours of therapy that engages a broader sphere of adults — including teachers and coaches — in ways to reinforce positive behaviors. Again, the research shows this works, reducing recidivism by as much as 62 percent.

There are two points that I absolutely must make about both of these approaches.

First, they’re not for every type of offender. There are times when incarceration is the most immediate need for youths who have committed violent crimes.

Second, these programs are driven by properly trained assessors who use data and their extensive professional training to determine which youthful offenders will participate.

I also want to emphasize the impact on taxpayers. Nationwide, it costs an average of $88,000 a year to confine a kid in a residential treatment facility — well over the $61,000 it costs for a year of tuition, room and board at Harvard.

But when researchers look at the reduced costs associated with crime and contact with the justice system, they’ve found participation in these therapies as an alternative to incarceration can save the public between $6,000 and $27,000 for every kid who participates.

In my home county of Tippecanoe, Ind., we’ve used JJDPA funding to foster these approaches through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which steers minor offenders away from detention facilities in favor of community-based alternative programs.

As a result, we cut juvenile arrests from 1,646 in 2008 to 755 in 2016. We also canceled plans to build a 32-bed juvenile detention facility, which would have cost about $22 million.

That last point is really a dollars and sense issue, because keeping juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders is a vital first step toward long-term public safety. The money we save today can be re-directed into schools, infrastructure, public health and other investments that strengthen our communities.

While states have led the way in reforms that cut recidivism and save money, we can’t do it alone. 

The JJDPA is one of our most important sources of funding. That’s why Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors recently argued for its reauthorization with a report, “Never is Better, But Once is Enough,” which is another apt phrase for describing why it’s so important to get juvenile offenders on track for productive lives.

Engaging parents and other adults as partners in this process is the smartest thing we can do, right now, to improve public safety in the years to come.


Patrick J. Flannelly is the chief of the Lafayette, Indiana Police Department.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Indiana juvenile justice policing

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