As the country grapples with calls to defund the police, and with concurrent budget pressures caused by COVID-19, this is an ideal time to rethink how we respond to young people in the justice system.
We should stop wasteful and unnecessary spending of our limited resources on youth prisons, instead investing in youth and their communities.
We’ve made considerable progress over the past two decades in decreasing the number of incarcerated youth. There has been a near 60 percent decrease in the number of young people incarcerated in youth facilities.
A shift towards community-based programming is a promising trend.
Despite this, the average state spends over $200,000 annually to lock up just one young person.
We come to justice reform with unique perspectives. Tyrone is Black, born and raised in Washington, D.C. during an era of high rates of crime and violence, and was locked up in D.C.’s notorious and dangerous Oak Hill youth prison.
Marc served in leadership positions with the District’s juvenile justice agency as it implemented a developmentally appropriate approach to working with youth, which included closing Oak Hill and shifting resources to community-based investments.
In 2014, the Justice Policy Institute authored Sticker Shock: The Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration which reported that, despite declining youth incarceration rates, the fiscal costs of incarceration remained extraordinarily high.
In a recent follow-up brief, Sticker Shock 2020: The Cost of Youth Incarceration, we find the trend continues with costs increasing, even as there are lower numbers of youth in confinement. Since 2014, the average cost of the most expensive confinement option reported increased by 44 percent, from $150,000 per year in 2014 to over $200,00 in 2020.
Is all this money buying our communities more safety?
Incarcerating a youth actually increases the likelihood of later recidivism by nearly a quarter, while the best available research suggests community-based supervision can reduce rates of recidivism, resulting in safer communities.
Beyond the economic cost, there are significant negative impacts of incarceration on youth.
While incarcerated, children are less likely than their peers to achieve educational attainment or employment stability, and are more likely to develop future health complications. These factors significantly impact recidivism rates, so we’re paying more to make communities less safe. Perhaps most importantly, youth of color continue to be drastically over-represented among incarcerated youth.
Costs cannot be minimized if facilities remain open, even with a small population. They still incur overhead including salaries and benefits for staff, not dependent on the average daily population at a facility.
In Maine, for example, the annual cost to incarcerate a youth is over $250,000 a year because there are only 22 young people in a facility with a maximum capacity of 300.
As the population decreases, the fixed operational costs to run the facility sends the per diem costs sky high. The only real choice is to close the facility and invest in approaches that research shows work better.
The current costs of confinement can completely cover the cost of community-based options that improve the care and treatment of youth, while negating the harmful impacts of incarceration. Youth often require significant individualized services; these services can be offered in a community-based setting for much less—in some programs as little as $75 per day – a nearly 90 percent savings over secure confinement.
Eliminating, or shrinking, facilities will allow states to better meet their fiscal challenges while more effectively addressing the structural inequities in juvenile justice.
At the same time that Sticker Shock 2020 was released, Fair and Just Prosecution, a network of elected prosecutors across the nation, and Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, current and former chiefs of youth prisons, issued a joint statement signed by over 30 elected prosecutors and over 40 youth correctional administrators, calling for the closure of youth prisons across the country.
These calls for reform also come shortly after the release of a paper from The Square One Project offering a vision for youth justice that eliminates youth prisons, relying on divesting from youth corrections and investing in communities.
In a moment when our country is striving to address systemic and racially biases in our legal system and reimagine accountability, states should lead the way in closing youth prisons and creating more equitable and effective systems of youth justice.
The evidence is clear that the high costs associated with confinement are a waste of taxpayer dollars and human potential. We can and must do better.
Marc Schindler and Tyrone Walker are, respectively, Justice Policy Institute’s Executive Director and JPI Associate. Marc is also a member of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.