Juvenile Law Center

April 04, 2014

Lessons from "Kids for Cash," Part 8: Locking Kids Up Costs Money—Lots of It

posted by Juvenile Law Center

This is the eighth blog post in our Lessons from "Kids for Cash" blog series, which explores some of the critical issues facing youth today that were brought to light by the "kids-for-cash" scandal and are depicted in the new film "Kids for Cash." "Kids for Cash" is currently playing in theaters across the country.

Nationwide, more and more taxpayer dollars are spent to put children behind bars while fewer and fewer dollars are invested in education. A cost-benefit analysis of corrections spending shows that our country is moving in the wrong direction. According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) report, “The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense,” our nation spends an average of $241 per day, or $88,000 annually, for every youth in a juvenile facility. Conversely, 2011 census data show the annual per-student cost for a public school education was about $10,600.

The amount of taxpayer money that states spend to incarcerate a juvenile varies: in Wyoming, it’s about $24 per day, while in Connecticut, it is $726. Pennsylvania spends an average $362 per day for each young person held in its juvenile facilities. That means that Luzerne County juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella’s decision to send 1,400 children to juvenile placement facilities for often minor “crimes” cost taxpayers a whopping $506,800—for just one day of incarceration.  When Ciavarella stepped down, Luzerne County saved millions of dollars with no detriment to public safety.

The national implications of spending patterns like these are astounding and set youth up for a lifetime of academic failure, dependence on public systems, and incarceration. JPI’s report shows that a five-percent increase in high school graduation rates for boys would save $5 billion in corrections-related expenses annually. Yet despite this finding, in 2009, 33 states upped state funding for incarceration and related services for youth and put fewer dollars into K-12 and higher education.

The annual total spending by states to incarcerate our nation’s youth is about $5.7 billion. Much of this money is spent locking up youth for non-violent crimes and status offenses, which include acts that would not be punishable for a person over 18, like like underage drinking or curfew violations. Yet the justice system is structured to incentivize detention over more effective and less harmful methods of rehabilitation or holding youth accountable.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, through its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, found that juvenile detention does not necessarily make communities safer or discourage reoffending. In fact, it does the opposite: spending time in detention, where youth may be subjected to strip searches and violence and are removed from their support networks, is often traumatic. As we discussed in a previous blog, many youth in the system already suffer from a history of childhood trauma. Detention is often the launchpad to a devastating cycle for our country’s most vulnerable population.

Youth who have spent time in secure facilities often return to their communities unable to succeed because of new barriers to employment, housing, and education. Many youth returning to school have trouble overcoming these barriers and simply drop out. Many will reoffend. Communities and taxpayers then must spend even more money to reincarcerate those young people, leaving them unable to contribute positively to the economic success of their communities.

How Can We Solve This Problem?

1. Learn from effective reform efforts like Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).

According to an Annie E. Casey reform brief, successful use of alternatives to detention cuts costs by helping communities safely reduce detention populations, enabling them to close detention units or avoid the expense of new construction. Many JDAI sites have shifted money once spent on detention to other kinds of family supports and youth supervision programs and services, saving counties and states millions in confinement-related costs. By implementing community-based supervision efforts for youth who are awaiting sentencing—like supervision by a youth advocate or evening reporting centers—the effort helps counties save money, prevents trauma, and reduces the chances that the youth will be re-arrested or sent to a secure facility after sentencing.

Zero-tolerance school discipline policies inflate the cost and severity of discipline to the detriment of youth and their communities.

2. Eliminate zero-tolerance school discipline policies, which unnecessarily funnel youth into the justice system, harming them while adding to the financial burden of taxpayers.

Zero-tolerance school discipline policies and an increased police presence in schools have changed the dynamics of discipline: offenses that might have been addressed on school grounds by counselors or administrators are now the responsibility of law enforcement officials. This inflates the cost and severity of discipline to the detriment and youth and their communities. Read more about this issue and how to bring an end to these policies here.

3. As always, the best way to lower costs of system involvement is to keep kids out of the system in the first place.

 As a society, we must recognize the developmental differences between kids and adults and give kids room to learn from their mistakes. Common-sense, community-based responses to youth who have committed crimes—especially non-violent ones—will benefit both youth and taxpayers.

The substantial social and fiscal costs of youth incarceration are forcing states to re-evaluate these practices, but we still have a long way to go. To find out more about your state’s placement rates, check out the Annie E. Casey report, “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States.”


Tags:Juvenile and Criminal Justice|Luzerne Kids for Cash Scandal

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