OP-ED: JDAI Results: We Can Lock Up Fewer Youth and Have Safer Communities

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Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute

As I join my colleagues in Philadelphia this week at the annual conference of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) — a national effort underway in 250 juvenile justice systems in 41 states — it is inspiring and heartening to hear the latest results showing how the initiative is proving through concrete evidence that we can incarcerate fewer youth without compromising public safety, and other positive outcomes for young people and communities.

Since 1992, JDAI has worked to strengthen juvenile justice systems, make communities safer, help youth and save tax dollars. JDAI promotes juvenile justice systems reform by focusing on a variety of ways to safely reduce reliance on detention, which many consider to be the gateway to the juvenile justice system’s correctional system. Young people who are detained, rather than released to their parents or some other kind of program, are statistically much more likely to be incarcerated at the end of the process. (Read the 2014 JDAI progress report here)

The initiative is built around eight core, interconnected strategies that address the primary reasons why youth are unnecessarily or inappropriately detained, including the need for juvenile justice systems to enhance collaboration and data driven decisions, have objective admissions, develop alternatives to detentionexpedite case processing, improve conditions of confinement and have an explicit focus on reducing racial disparities and improving conditions of confinement.

In his last “State of the Initiative” before retiring as the long-time inspirational and tenacious leader of JDAI, Casey’s Bart Lubow reported the most recent results from the initiative — data supporting the notion that we can build safer, more effective juvenile justice systems.

These key results — profiled in the publication “Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative: Progress Report 2014” — show that JDAI sites:

  • Substantially reduced reliance on secure detention: JDAI sites are using 1.3 million fewer days of detention each year than they did prior to implementing reform. JDAI sites have reduced their average daily population by 44 percent, or nearly 3,600 youth per day.
  • Reduced detention of youth of color: Among the 112 JDAI sites reporting, these sites detained 2,268 fewer youth of color per day in 2011 than they did prior to beginning the detention reform process.
  • Reduced their commitment of youth to state custody: On average, the number of youth they commit to state custody was reduced by 43 percent between their baseline year of joining the initiative and 2012.
  • Had more favorable public safety results. JDAI sites use a variety of indicators to gauge the overall level of juvenile crime. Most participating JDAI sites report reductions in juvenile crime since implementing the initiative. Among the 109 sites that reported comparable data, there were 33 percent fewer juvenile arrests, 29 percent fewer juvenile intake cases and 45 percent fewer delinquency petitions.
  • Made better use of taxpayer dollars: A conservative estimate of juvenile detention bed costs suggest that the public spends $60,000 to $80,000 per year to detain a youth. JDAI reported that 2013, 56 sites had closed 2,050 juvenile detention beds, and that JDAI sites are realizing $123 million to $164 million each year in reduced costs for secure detention.

What JDAI shows is that by using a commonsense approach to solving problems in our juvenile justice systems, we can improve public safety and make more responsible use of our resources. Through its sustained commitment and support for JDAI, the Casey Foundation, in collaboration with juvenile justice leaders across the country, has shown that when we detain the wrong youth we waste precious resources and negatively impact youth who come into contact with the justice system. The initiative has also clearly shown that there is a fairer and more effective way to operate. As Lubow said, while we still have much work to do, particularly to create more equitable systems for young people and their families, the progress shows that reform of public systems is possible if we work together and stay at it over the long term.

For more information on JDAI and its outcomes in reducing reliance on incarceration for young people, visit the JDAI website, and review, “Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative: Progress Report 2014.

Jason Ziedenberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank on juvenile and criminal justice issues.

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