Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Transforming Juvenile Justice

In these times of crisis, juvenile justice reform is politically saleable, cost effective and smart.

The fiscal crisis at the state and local level shows little sign of abating, and many economic advisers project revenue levels will not return to pre-recession levels until 2014 or 2015. Rahm Emmanuel's dictum to "never let a crisis go to waste" may sound like an opportunity to disrupt decades of habitual spending behavior, but in the face of these budget complexities, finding the right substitute may make this opportunity look more like a daunting challenge.

Not only must alternatives be politically saleable, public officials must have confidence that the alternatives will produce equivalent or superior results, with minimal risk they'll cause a train wreck. (Think of the consolidation of fire stations -- amply supported by workload analysis, but ended in a tragic death.)

It could not be a better time for considering the recommendations of a December 2009 gubernatorial task force on juvenile justice in New York state. The Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice studied innovation across the country -- including in New York City, and Erie, Suffolk and Onondaga counties -- and made sweeping recommendations for change. The proposed re-direction of resources is custom-made for incoming administrations who face budget holes but still want better outcomes for delinquent youth, community safety and equitable treatment of minority youth.

The task force bluntly concluded, "New York is investing enormous sums in a system that does not deliver what it promises." The task force further summarized that juvenile systems can produce results that are better and cheaper.

While directed at New York, the report challenges many prevailing practices in juvenile justice systems across the country. At the core of the problem is the overreliance on institutional placements that have poor track records in reducing recidivism. This is partly because of poor programming, but also because the use of such placements for medium- and low-risk youth, ironically, disrupts positive social networks, and teaches them negative behaviors. More ironically, the full cost of increased juvenile misbehavior for taxpayers and victims vastly outweigh the cost of the punitive cure.

The assertion that confinement should be used only with the highest-risk offender turns on its head what is often a basis for treatment decisions in juvenile court. As stated in the report, "Youth should never be placed in a facility solely because of concerns about their family situation or due to the lack of community-based services that can adequately address their needs."

In fiscal terms, the comparison is stark. In New York and many other states, placements in correctional facilities cost in excess of $80,000 per year, and stays often last a year, even for youth offenders judged to be a low public safety risk. Reducing costs in these facilities by stripping services and staffing only raises risks of abuses and legal challenges that their rehabilitative purpose is not being served. In contrast, evidence-based community alternatives for medium-risk youth in New York City ranged in cost from $5000 to $15,000 per year.

The task force report emphasizes that these "all-in" cost savings require that intensive community-based alternatives be deployed toward youth who would otherwise be headed toward institutional placements. Savings from contracting institutional placements cannot be reallocated for general purpose prevention programs but must be highly targeted. Spreading the program more broadly may harm low-risk youth and will push program costs higher.

Strong habits tilt the system toward high-cost but ineffective placements that push the problem out of sight. Public safety leads the arguments for incarceration, but when Ohio moved to a community rehabilitation model and evaluated recidivism rates over three years, youth in community treatment reoffended 20 percent of the time compared to 53 percent of comparable-risk youth released from institutional placements.

Financial incentives that may affect placement decisions also need attention. Localities must blend multiple funding sources to fund youth services, and complex calculations of net cost to taxpayers may create disincentives to develop strong community programming. In New York, for example, counties bear only 50 percent of the cost of placing a juvenile in a state-operated facility, but do not get comparable subsidies guaranteed under alternative-to-placement programs or probation services.

The task force used a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, developed in Washington state, which underscores how broad the benefits of juvenile justice reform can be. Looking at all-in costs, the analysis concluded that it is possible to reduce crime, improve outcomes for youth and spare taxpayers and victims costs and tribulation. This is a reform custom made for opportunities originating from crisis.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
Special Projects