OP-ED: Costs to Incarcerate Young People Tip of Iceberg

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Amanda Petteruiti

Amanda Petteruti

Jason Ziedenberg

Jason Ziedenberg

Over the past decade, the vast majority of states have reduced the number of youth they incarcerate in juvenile justice system facilities: There has been a 45 percent decline in the number of youth committed in residential placement between 2001 and 2011.

Despite this progress, many juvenile justice systems and the elected officials who oversee them are still making policy choices that rely on the most costly but least effective response to delinquency. The most recent data show that 62 percent of youth committed and confined in 2011 were there for a nonviolent, non-person offense.

Our continued overreliance on incarceration costs some within our community more than others: For every one white youth confined in 2011, nearly three youth of color were confined. There is evidence that while the overall number of incarcerated youth is declining, the gap between who is confined and who isn’t is widening along racial and ethnic lines.

In a new report from the Justice Policy Institute, “Sticker Shock: The Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration,” we expand on our previous work on what it costs young people, their families and our communities when we overrely on incarceration.

“Sticker Shock” builds on our 2009 report Costs of Confinement, where we reported data from the American Correctional Association on what juvenile departments told them they spend each day (or each year) on the confinement of a young person. In “Sticker Shock,” we directly surveyed state juvenile corrections administrators or collected other official materials generated by government to document the direct costs we all pay for incarcerating a young person.

In 33 states and jurisdictions, taxpayers can spend $100,000 a year or more on a single young person’s confinement. In contrast, community-based approaches that are individualized — based on the unique needs of each youth — and that engage the family and connect the youth to neighborhood resources can cost as little as $75 per day, or $27,375 a year.

Stay tuned. Since these per day and per year costs change over time, JPI plans to update the information governmental organizations and stakeholders have provided about what it currently costs to incarcerate a young person in their jurisdiction as frequently as possible.

But the direct costs are just the tip of the iceberg of what it costs all of us when we incarcerate young people.

Research commissioned by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the White House Council for Community Solutions estimated that it costs taxpayers trillions of dollars every year when we fail to connect millions of 16- to 24-year-olds to school and work opportunities. That’s because the result is that they pay less taxes, rely more on public assistance and experience more negative outcomes throughout their lives.

In “Sticker Shock,” we developed an estimate of the long-term costs of confinement that include the cost to victims and taxpayers due to the increased likelihood that a young person will commit a new offense in the future, the cost of lost educational opportunities and its implications for young people’s ability to work and pay taxes, their reliance on public assistance and the cost when young people are more likely to come into harm’s way while confined.

The estimate shows that, each year, the U.S. incurs an estimated $8 billion to $21 billion in long-term costs for the confinement of young people. Given the trillions of dollars estimated to be lost on those 16- to 24-year-olds, $8 billion to $21 billion is a conservative estimate.

The “youth deincarceration” trend has coincided with a decrease in crime and with policy changes in juvenile justice. Absent policy change and the crime trends — if youth confinement hadn’t decreased recently — the estimated costs for youth confinement could have been much, much higher. Had the 45 percent decrease in the number of youth confined nationwide never occurred, the estimated costs for victims and taxpayers as a result of the confinement of young people might have been in the range of $14 billion to $39 billion.

Given the long-term impacts of locking up a youth, you can draw a straight line between the hundreds of thousands of dollars we are spending to incarcerate young people right now, and the billions of dollars we spend down the road. We can save young people, their families, their communities and ourselves from shouldering these enormous costs by taking the following steps:

First, we should enhance our efforts to keep young people out of the system entirely by making bigger investments before youth become deeply justice-involved. We not only need to make bigger investments in diversion, alternatives to incarceration and community-based options to serve young people at home instead of expensive buildings, we need to make robust investments in the kind of schooling, treatment, work and training opportunities that all young people need. It’s pennywise and pound-foolish to trim juvenile justice budgets at the front end when these services will end up saving us money in the long term.

Second, from state to state, and community to community, policymakers should address all the barriers that exist to reducing reliance on confinement. The barriers are different from state-to-state, and community to community. In some places, counties lack a fiscal incentive to reduce the number of young people sent to state facilities; beyond funding for buildings, they lack the money to build alternatives in community. Some communities need to build data system to measure outcomes of various interventions.

Some communities still see too many misdemeanant youth ending up confined, and need to change laws, policies and practices to screen these young people out of the  system. Policymakers should identify and address these barriers consistent with the evidence, best practices and what can be learned from other jurisdictions. We know that community-based options are less expensive and can get better outcomes than confinement for many youth: Let’s take the roadblocks down and keep as many young people at home as possible.

Third, policymakers should work with state government and justice professionals to develop consistent standards for measuring per diem and confinement costs from place to place. Because every state (and local) juvenile justice system is different, it is a challenge to come up with a consistent way to describe these direct costs in a way that is meaningful. These costs also change over time. Absent a national standard, JPI commits to take steps to update this cost of confinement information based on what we receive from government agents in the future.

Finally, and consistent with the recommendations in the report, we need to expand research opportunities to study the long-term costs of confinement and juvenile justice system contact. The estimates developed by researchers in this arena are only a first step, and more scholarship is needed. If we provide more resources for research, and then use the findings in policy decisions, we could have a transformative effect on juvenile justice in ways that would help young people succeed, save taxpayers money and result in safer and stronger communities.

Amanda Petteruti is a senior policy associate and Jason Ziedenberg is research and policy director with the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose mission it is to reduce the use of incarceration.

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