Juvenile Justice: Where I’d Put My Money

Counseling youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system is tough but gratifying work. Gratifying because I can get to know these fascinating young people and share in their hopes and challenges. Tough because I believe I am doing very little to keep future teens from finding their way into my office.

When I examine the trajectory that led to a young person’s criminal involvement, the strands are long and they often seem rooted in our social support systems, where crime feels like an expected outcome. Tracing the strands back is a useful exercise, but I demand more than hindsight. I want an end to youth crime and youth incarceration.

With budget cuts, 2011 does not seem to be the year.  The Office of Justice Programs, which houses the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, recently released its 2009 Annual Report. Its findings stand in opposition to some of the proposed cuts in President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal, released earlier this year (and yet to be voted on).

Here’s what the Annual Report says about juvenile justice:

  • Juvenile justice services saw a boon in 2009 with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Federal stimulus bill.
  • $80 million went to strengthen existing mentoring projects or launch new ones. Large programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters saw funding, as did smaller programs that are using novel approaches (like pairing identified teens with senior citizens; helping juveniles post-detention; and using anti-gang mentoring strategies).
  • According to the report, “mentoring programs help at-risk youth overcome challenges and build a future that is filled with promise.”

Spending on Prevention is an Investment that Brings Returns

The rationale for the Justice Department to fund mentoring and early response is clearly one of prevention — it’s also one of savings and return on investment. If we spend up front, we won’t have to spend more detaining youth later on. To test that idea, I’ve crunched some numbers on juvenile detention:

  • On a given day in 2006 – the last census count available – the United States was holding more than 90,000 youth in detention or commitment facilities, or nearly 3 for every 1,000 kids in the country.
  • Juvenile detention can cost states upwards of $80,000 per year per youth. That’s $219 every night, a full $20 higher than the average hotel room in New York City.
  • On those figures, taxpayers around the country float more than $7 billion per year on keeping kids locked up.

Moreover, recidivism rates are so high – 50 to 80 percent according to some sources – that it’s hard to make the case that this is money well spent. (Sure, it’s better than a sending them off to a New York hotel room. But how much better?)

That’s why many economists support a prevention approach; it’s cost effective. In fact, we can chart the effectiveness of specific interventions and invest wisely to save down the road:

  • Multisystemic Therapy saves $2.64 for each dollar spent.
  • Functional Family Therapy saves $7.69 for each dollar spent.
  • Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care saves $10.88 for each dollar spent.
  • DARE saves $0.00 for each dollar spent.
  • Scared Straight loses $203.51 for each dollar spent (which is scary).1

In short, spending on diversionary and treatment programs for most offenders and at-risk youth is smart spending – detention is not.  (If you’re interested in a discussion on cost-benefit analysis, see the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The National Juvenile Justice Network information.)

The Immediate Future of Juvenile Justice

The Administration’s proposed federal budget cuts the chances of prevention coming out on top. According to an independent analysis by First Focus (described in this SparkAction blog):

President Obama has requested a decrease of more than $120 million in funding for [child safety] programs over the next fiscal year. This is a proposed 13.1 percent decrease from fiscal year 2010 levels. The majority of this cut comes from a proposed 32.5 percent decrease in funding for Juvenile Justice Programs, the largest of all child safety programs. If the President’s budget is passed as requested, child safety funding would be 6.7 percent lower, in real terms, than it was in 2006.

Let’s be clear, 32.5 percent is no small deal. Juvenile justice, the system designed to respond to the unique challenges of youth who commit – or have the potential to commit – crimes, will now be working with less money than it had five years ago. States and municipalities will receive less funding to implement programs that work.

The mentoring programs mentioned earlier stand to lose $35 million and Juvenile Accountability Block Grants $15 million. And that’s the Administration’s proposal. Many of the newly elected Members of Congress – and the Republican majority in the House – have said they will push to limit federal spending.

There is good news: OJP is looking at a few new ways to spend its limited money. They are proposing:

  • $37 million to boost the new Defending Childhood Initiative
  • $13 million for delinquency court improvements
  • $12 million for gang and youth prevention
  • $12 million for mental health specialty courts
  • $10 million on probation pilot programs
  • $1 million on a best-practice repository
  • and close to $1 million to study disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile system.

(Thanks to Youth Today for summarizing these projects in this article.)

Who’s Getting Cut?

Through my work in Washington, DC, and Miami, I know that a typical youth in the system might be behind two or more grade levels in school, doesn’t have enough pocket change to get on the bus, has never received counseling for trauma or substance abuse, and has to adopt an image of bravado simply to survive in their impoverished and increasingly violent neighborhoods.

To provide help to a young person like this, our most effective approaches go beyond counseling and tracking.Young people need a comprehensive continuum of services that taps their needs and strengths and treats them, their families, and their communities holistically.

These services cost money.

The Council on Juvenile Justice (CJJ) outlines some key needs of children in order to prevent their delinquency: (1) loving and involved parents; (2) development of social skills; (3) safe, high-standards schools; (4) communities with opportunity for youth involved and adult supervision; and (5) positive peer groups. Programs that bolster these areas are now fighting for a spot in the budget breadline.

Failure to invest in youth in the juvenile system does not mean we won’t be forced to spend more money later on. Are we really ready to throw in the towel? Do we feel right ordering more contracts for more jails based on a young person’s academic achievement scores in the third or fourth grade?

Next year’s budget will be the following year’s annual report, and there are only so many ways to dress up our failure to America’s youth.



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