OP-ED: Wise Spending Leads to Effective Solutions

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Judge TimberlakeA recent conversation with a group of friends reminded me that discussions about money are complicated and can move easily from discussion to heated argument.

I said that more public funds should be dedicated to research about positive outcomes for kids in the juvenile justice system and that the research would lead to development of additional evidence-based programs and practices.

One friend countered that dollars should be dedicated to prevention to keep kids out of the system. Another suggested that lots of kids come from intergenerational criminal families and will continue offending no matter what the services – that spending public funds on those kids just removed funding for services to kids who don’t get into trouble.

A third colleague noted that the most cost effective approach to preventing bad outcomes has nothing to do with kids in trouble with the law. By putting nurses or experienced parents in contact with new mothers, better results occur for even those families with long histories of involvement with crime and punishment.

Before this discussion degenerated into name-calling – egghead, do-gooder, defeatist, and worse – I asked a neutral participant what she thought. Her answer was, “Kids who come into contact with the justice system self-identify as obviously needing attention.  Let’s spend our money on direct services.” She recognized that “justice system” work is accomplished by one-on-one relationships and that money is required too for salaries of probation officers, social workers, correctional employees and therapists and to pay the incidentals – gas money, internet, copy paper, and more.

In a time of tight government budgets, difficult choices have to be made, so I asked what services should be purchased. The responses were many but clustered around a few themes. Work experience was suggested as a necessary component for approaching adulthood in a responsible way, and YouthBuild was suggested as an example of excellent programming. “Anger Management” seems to be generally accepted as a response to angry, acting-out youth, and Washington Aggression Interruption Training is a model in wide use. A social worker said that family therapy was essential to changing behavior and added that Multisystemic Therapy had excellent results in difficult families.

A newcomer to the subject of juvenile justice overheard this conversation and said, “Why don’t you just provide those services to every kid and stop arguing about it? Recidivism will go down, and we can spend less money in the future.”

I had to remind my friends that their suggestions were all evidence-based programs and that they indeed had great results. On the other hand, none of those approaches should be employed without adequate assessments of individual kids by trained workers. Assessments of risks, needs and strengths should drive decisions about what services should be provided, or more importantly, whether any services of any kind should be employed with a child who is at low-risk of re-offending.

Intelligent selection of services for medium and high-risk youth come from many effective assessment tools. After all, a great case plan based on assessment and evaluation yields better results than the belief that one program alone can change behavior forever. Boot camps yield good intermediate results, but the benefits of “three hots and a cot” plus structure cannot ignore the real world outside. If drill instructors and well-run camps are replaced by empty refrigerators, absent addict parents and roach-infected mattresses on the floor, the boot camp lessons soon yield to the past patterns and necessities of survival.

Good fiscal decisions can yield good results for kids, and those decisions occur at all levels of government. Nationally, we need more research into evidence-based programs. Not all EBPs work with all kids, and even the best of them do not work on all populations. Federal funding and technical assistance can drive better data collection around what works with kids.

Recidivism reduction is the goal of the juvenile justice system, but more research and data around positive outcomes is needed to determine the intermediate steps to reducing repeat crime.

State governments should develop quality assurance structures to insure fidelity to existing EBPs and to capture data to develop new and effective practices. Results–based contracting can require performance measures to demand that scarce dollars are spent for real outcomes.

Even when public funds seem to be stretched to the limit, it is possible to find dollars for research, and one logical place to look for money is in prison budgets. Governments spend an inordinate amount of money to punish teenagers in prison settings where delivery of services is far more expensive and far less successful. If states only sent kids to prisons when necessary for public safety and got them out of prison as quickly as possible, millions of dollars could be freed up for community services and research that would lead to the development of even better services and strategies.

Why all this talk about money?  Because we currently know how to reduce crime and improve the lives of kids, and additional research can yield even smarter, more cost-effective tools. The reduction of the juvenile justice population will make us all safer and improve the lives of real people. All it takes is wise money.


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