OP-ED: States Have Choices for Juvenile Justice Reform

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Bill Baccaglini

Bill Baccaglini

Sylvia Rowlands

Sylvia Rowlands

State and local governments around the country are dealing with issues related to incarceration of juveniles. Several, including New York, are considering proposals that would end sentencing 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and expand alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Wherever these issues are raised, opponents with their own special interests inevitably arise and launch into a steady and predictable drumbeat equating incarceration with public safety. Their message implies that the choice is incarceration or nothing — and that by reducing the number of juveniles who are locked up, we are going to endanger public safety. In fact, the issue is far more nuanced than that.

It’s not incarceration or nothing. In reality, it’s incarceration versus approaches that have already been proven to yield better results.

The fact is that programs can be implemented, like the one being advocated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, that would actually make the public significantly safer while also saving millions of taxpayers’ dollars now being wasted on imprisoning youth in an endless cycle of recidivism and reincarceration.

Of course, we need to acknowledge at the outset that certain violent individuals who pose a risk to the community need to be incarcerated. That shouldn’t change. Even as we work to make their slide into career recidivism less likely, we should recognize that, at least for now, they need to be separated from the community.

But we also need to acknowledge that, in many states, the current juvenile justice system is broken, spending enormous sums of money on tactics that don’t work and producing outcomes that are so poor they should be considered unacceptable.

In New York, for example, 80 percent of juveniles who are incarcerated in residential facilities are rearrested within 36 months of being released. Each juvenile who is incarcerated costs $200,000 a year. So for one offender, who is reincarcerated multiple times over the course of his life, the cost to taxpayers can be millions of dollars. And is society any safer, given the 80 percent probability that the offender is going to commit more crimes as soon as he’s released?

Now, consider the alternative.

In California, the state has reduced its juvenile inmate population by 90 percent and closed the majority of state-run facilities, so those facilities now house only the most serious offenders. The result: a lower crime rate at half the cost.

In New York, for the past seven years, The New York Foundling has been working with the city on a program called Blue Sky. This evidence-based intervention keeps adolescents in their communities, with their families, using a comprehensive array of proven treatment methods to get them and their families on the right track and dramatically reduce their rearrest rates.

The program’s success speaks for itself. It has saved millions of dollars that would otherwise have been spent to incarcerate these youth, but more importantly, its participants were 41 percent less likely to be rearrested than those juveniles who had served time in state prisons.

That translates into improved public safety. Every former offender we prevented from committing another crime represents a car not stolen, a house not broken into, a person not mugged, a drug deal that didn’t take place.

Nationally, in programs certified by the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development at the University of Colorado Boulder, outcomes across a wide variety of venues include comparable reductions in recidivism rates, along with significantly reduced rates of drug and alcohol use.

What all these success stories have in common — and what needs to be part of any effective juvenile justice reform — is that they employ evidence-based practices, or EBPs. Whether they target troubled youth before they enter the justice system or adjudicated juveniles in need of rehabilitation, they share the philosophy that, in many cases, a young person’s behavioral and criminal problems can be addressed with the kind of comprehensive approach we’ve described, involving their families and keeping them in their communities. These EPBs require accountability and measurable performance. They support not only the offender, but the primary family caregiver, giving them access to services that can strengthen the family and prevent future incidents.

EPBs also produce verifiable, replicable results and are subjected to rigorous, transparent evaluation and scrutiny. We can monitor the individuals providing treatment, the tactics being used and the outcomes achieved. The process and the results can be peer reviewed so we can learn what works best and strive for continual improvement.

And we can demonstrate to the public and policymakers — with hard data — that EPBs are actually reducing crime, keeping the public safer and saving the taxpayers’ money.

To us, it’s pretty clear that evidence-based alternatives yield better results and provide greater and more sustainable community safety than the short-sighted existing models that emphasize incarceration over all else and produce nothing but an endless cycle of recidivism.

Bill Baccaglini is president and CEO of The New York Foundling. Sylvia Rowlands is senior vice president for evidence-based Programs at The New York Foundling.

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