$271,318. That’s how much California expects to spend per youth this year on its failed state youth correctional facilities, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). This amount of money could drastically improve a young person’s education, well-being and development opportunities.
To give perspective, a four-year undergraduate education at Stanford University costs approximately $276,000. Instead, the money is being squandered on DJJ’s dangerous and poorly designed facilities, which have continuously failed to improve youth outcomes. The true cost of these misdirected resources extends far beyond the state budget to the cycle of justice involvement for youth and their families.
The scandalous $271,318 per capita cost of DJJ is for an estimated 700 young people housed in three facilities. Despite the dropping population and rising cost, the system struggles with high recidivism rates as nearly 54 percent of youth are reconvicted of a new offense within three years of release. In addition, these institutions remain deeply entrenched in violence and trauma. Our failed juvenile justice systems draw their longevity and power from keeping the public unaware of their true costs.
Youth and their families also struggle with the high cost of justice involvement at the local level. This includes fines and fees associated with legal representation, detention in a juvenile hall and probation costs. While in theory these fees are meant to reimburse jurisdictions for justice expenditures, their application only serves to further strain vulnerable families. Research shows how the inability to pay these fees can result in youth being unable to get a driver’s license or have their records expunged. Such fees serve no rehabilitative purpose and limit a young person’s opportunity to move beyond their system involvement. Pending state legislation in California seeks to eliminate these fees.
The failure of California’s DJJ, much like those of countless systems across the country, goes beyond these obvious state budget and local costs. These collateral consequences should be included when calculating the true costs of our justice system. Placement in a youth correctional facility negatively impacts employment opportunities and decreases one’s chances of graduating from high school by 13 percent, while increasing likelihood of future adult incarceration by 22 percent. Finally, youth confinement can produce worse physical and mental health outcomes years later in adulthood.
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Given recent positive juvenile justice trends, now is the time to recognize and address these high fiscal, social and personal costs. California’s plummeting youth arrests have also coincided with very significant drops in juvenile hall populations. This mirrors national trends and represents a real opportunity to build on successful reforms, though it remains largely unheralded. Unfortunately, California and other states still have not thoughtfully expanded community-based programs that build on youth’s strengths or held state policymakers accountable for our current needs.
Juvenile justice advocates and their allies must highlight these unconscionable true costs and hold policymakers and systems leaders accountable. Yet a sustainable solution will not be found exclusively in Washington, D.C. or even in state capitals across the country. Deep reform requires that we understand the landscape of true and hidden costs across the 3,141 counties nationally. CJCJ’s California Sentencing Institute shows how county-level policies are the fundamental decision point for confinement, prosecution and policing.
California’s counties show great disparities in these decisions, resulting in a system of justice by geography. Some are much more punitive than others and rely heavily on the state system, which comes at high cost to the entire state. All this has a direct cost, but as criminal justice researcher John Pffaf and others note, these costs are not always directly experienced or even perceived by the public.
California justice advocates, along with others nationally, recognize that the true costs of these policy decisions must be made clear. Unfortunately, the systemic failure of California’s state juvenile justice facilities is not unique. The enormous social and economic costs are borne by taxpayers and communities nationwide. But the growing work in California and elsewhere reflects a shift in public understanding of the true cost of our failed juvenile justice policies. Beyond simply identifying the problems and costs, examining costs paves a way for necessary and long-lasting reform.
Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's director of policy and development.