The High Cost of Ineffective Juvenile Justice Policy

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John Last 1Anyone who has been involved with governmental agencies can probably attest to their generally poor quality of service and high level of ineptitude. Bureaucracies by their nature are designed to remove decision making power from those best able to make the decisions. They attempt to automize decision making, and the results are often predictably absurd. Juvenile justice systems are usually no exception.

A recent study of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) found it to be ineffective and costly according to a December 13th story in the Chicago Tribune. The study, conducted by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, concluded that more than half of the kids who were incarcerated by the DJJ returned to the system, and that the juvenile facilities were in effect a “feeder system” for adult incarceration.

In an interview with the Tribune, George W. Timberlake, the Chairman of the Commission and a retired judge, said, "we actually saw a system that doesn't work so well, if we gauge the worth of the system in increasing public safety, doing so at the least possible cost and improving the outcomes of kids who otherwise might be part of future criminal activity.”

He contrasted the $86,000 price tag of keeping a kid in detention with the $3,000 - $5,000 cost of more effective community-based supervision programs. Also, as many as 40 percent of the kids in detention are there for conditional violations, such as missing curfew and skipping school.

According to Kathryn Baer, a public policy expert who runs the website Poverty and Policy, recidivism rates for kids in detention are 50 to 80 percent. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that the current practices of locking up kids who are not dangerous, and in fact have often violated laws that are only crimes because of their age, isn’t a smart approach.

The commission also reviewed the procedure used to decide whether or not kids would be sent back to prison. In Illinois these decisions are made by prison review boards, often after the kids are cited for violations by their parole officers. The officers oversee a mix of adults and kids, usually about 100, and receive no special training for dealing with juveniles.

Although every state has its own procedures, the bureaucracy of most juvenile systems seems to lead to more failure than necessary. The woman in Tennessee who I recently wrote about sent me an email telling me a little more about her son. He was on probation, and had completed the drug treatment program, but this wasn’t reported to the proper authorities. Now he is subject to indefinite detention until he is an adult.

The failure of government agencies to do a good job is hardly surprising, but during difficult economic times it seems more galling. Continually we see evidence that prove not only that diversionary and community-based programs are more effective in deterring crime, they are also flat out more cost effective.

In Poverty and Policy Baer writes about the District of Columbia’s Youth Court. D.C.’s Youth Court is one of the largest and most successful of its kind in the country. It is an alternative sentencing program for first-time offenders that uses peer juries to make determinations of sentence. Since 1996, 11 percent of the kids who have been through the court have been rearrested. This, at a cost of about $713 per youth, seems to be an idea that is actually working. Around the country other programs are working too, but most of them face an uphill battle when it comes to getting funding. State agencies are famously adept at maintaining themselves in budgetary battles, and will often go to great lengths to discredit innovative methods that might reduce their piece of the pie.

It is my hope that policy makers will take advantage of the lean economic times to implement programs that actually work and get rid of those that are based on outmoded ideas of toughness and bureaucratic inertia. There are enough problems with the economy without spending money on things that not only don’t work, but will cost society more in the long run.

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