OP-ED: Gauging Youth Incarceration Costs Like Comparing Apples to Pork Chops

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Jason Ziedenberg

Jason Ziedenberg

Amanda Petteruiti

Amanda Petteruiti

Every day we make decisions — the salad or the burger, the car or public transportation, buy or rent. To make these decisions we take into account the benefits, the risks and the cost. Whenever we make these choices, we may take for granted that we have access to the information that allows us to do our own personal cost-benefit analyses (whether we do them consciously or unconsciously).

We should have the same kind of information to make decisions about public policy, especially policy that has the potential to harm youth, families and communities, all while costing millions of taxpayer dollars every year with few, if any, benefits.

When it comes to youth incarceration, the risks are evident and abundant. Research has shown that locking up youth impedes development, interrupts education and hampers employment prospects. The benefits are minimal, with only a few youth who may be in need of intensive treatment and intervention helped.

We have a good grasp of these first two factors that go into decision-making, but the third piece that would make a cost-benefit analysis possible — the total monetary costs — is not necessarily clear.

In the course of collecting costs of youth incarceration for “Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration,” states and jurisdictions reported the cost of incarcerating a single youth in a variety of ways:

  • Texas reports the cost of state-operated facilities, probation and post-adjudication per youth, as well as the source of the funding (i.e. county or state dollars). The highest-cost option in Texas was $437.11 per youth per day;
  • Maryland reports the average annual cost of every state-operated facility, as well as committed program per diems. In fiscal year 2013, the highest-cost option was $809.00 per youth per day;
  • Ohio reports the average cost of youth incarceration for all facilities, which, as of July 2014, includes administration and overhead ($554.80), as well as a “marginal cost” ($27.60).

Two states did not report the cost of incarceration at all, instead reporting an average cost of care regardless of placement, resulting in a significant cost differential with neighboring states:

  • Pennsylvania divided the total cost of all delinquency placements by the number of days of care, which came out to an average per diem of $209.
  • Louisiana divided the total budget for direct care by the number of youth served, which came to $127.84. This number was dramatically different from a figure from a 2010 Louisiana Legislative Auditor report, which showed that the per diem cost in fiscal year 2009 was $424.

None of these methods for reporting cost is incorrect, per se. However, the wide variation in reporting makes it difficult to have a broad sense of what we, as taxpayers, pay to incarcerate youth. Having an idea of the cost of incarceration also informs policy choices, like whether we should serve more youth in less expensive, more effective options in the community.

Beyond the method or style of reporting, the bigger, tougher question for jurisdictions is: What pieces of the budget or expenditures goes into those calculations? Facilities operations, treatment or services provided by contractors and administrative services are all costs that could be included, and some states include more information than that. Nevada, for example included the capital overlay for new facilities construction one year, but not the year prior, generating dramatically different per diems across years.

The variation in how systems report costs is similar to the different accounting of recidivism rates that the Council of State Governments found in their report “Reducing Recidivism and Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System.”

The public and policymakers alike are left comparing apples to pork chops to four-door sedans, unable to make accurate comparisons across systems and places; conduct research, such as cost-benefit analysis, with consistent data; or make appropriate policy recommendations.

This isn’t about seeing which state comes in first or last for the highest or lowest costs. In fact, although costs in neighboring jurisdictions might be similar, overall costs across jurisdictions won’t and shouldn’t be the same. The availability and quality of treatment strategies appropriate to the population, the presence of unions, the extent to which facilities are fully utilized and simple variation in consumer prices across regions all affect the total cost of locking up a young person.

Nonetheless, jurisdictions would benefit from a uniform method for calculating the total cost of incarcerating youth. If nothing else, consistent, agreed-upon methods for calculating cost would give juvenile justice administrators a road map for calculating costs.

Jurisdictions should go beyond the cost of incarceration and include the cost of community-based services or the total cost of even involving a young person in the juvenile justice system at all. The recent pilot program to implement the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol included training and technical assistance to conduct cost-benefit analyses of services, including and especially those in the community, for court-involved youth.

Juvenile correctional administrators and systems leaders could also benefit from a process that makes clear what they think needs to be included in their public reporting of costs. The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators’ white paper on juvenile recidivism, “Defining and Measuring Recidivism,” represents one way the profession could facilitate a discussion about how this kind of data can be reported across systems.

Figuring out how much it costs to incarcerate youth likely means a confirmation that high-quality care is expensive. For policymakers, it will be difficult to defend a high cost per diem, but it also means that policymakers can and should argue that incarceration is to be used sparingly and for as short a time as possible.

The 45 percent decrease in the rate of youth confinement between 2001 and 2011 is good news. While declining youth crime rates have had a significant role in reducing the number of youth in secure confinement, the juvenile justice reform field is making successful arguments that youth incarceration causes more harm than good for youth, families and communities.

And policymakers are responding with new laws, policies and practices that seek to reduce youth incarceration. But, there are still about 70,000 youth locked up on any given day, and about 150,000 who cycle through facilities each year.

A more consistent calculation of the total price tag for locking up youth would mean that policymakers and the public could make more accurate cost-benefit analyses to make different policy decisions, directing resources away from incarceration and toward the kinds of policies that help youth succeed, protect public safety and build strong 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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