Juvenile detention interrupts young people’s education, and once incarcerated, some youth have a hard time returning to school. A Department of Education study showed that 43 percent of incarcerated youth receiving remedial education services in detention did not return to school after release, and another 16 percent enrolled in school but dropped out after only five months. Another researcher found that most incarcerated 9th graders return to school after incarceration but within a year of re-enrolling two-thirds to three-fourths withdraw or drop out of school: After four years, less than 15 percent of these incarcerated 9th graders had completed their secondary education.
Young people who leave detention and who do not reattach to schools face collateral risks: High school dropouts face higher unemployment, poorer health (and a shorter life), and earn substantially less than youth who do successfully return and complete school. The failure of detained youth to return to school also affects public safety. The U.S. Department of Education reports that dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested. The National Longitudinal Transition Study reveals that approximately 20 percent of all adolescents with disabilities had been arrested after being out of school for two years.
If detention disrupts educational attainment, it logically follows that detention will also impact the employment opportunities for youth as they spiral down a different direction from their non-detained peers. A growing number of studies show that incarcerating young people has significant immediate and long-term negative employment and economic outcomes.
A study done by academics with the National Bureau of Economic Research found that jailing youth (age 16-25) reduced work time over the next decade by 25-30 percent. Looking at youth age 14 to 24, Princeton University researchers found that youth who spent some time incarcerated in a youth facility experienced three weeks less work a year (for African-American youth, five weeks less work a year) as compared to youth who had no history of incarceration.
Due to the disruptions in their education, and the natural life processes that allow young people to “age-out” of crime, one researcher posits, “the process of incarceration could actually change an individual into a less stable employee.” A monograph published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that incarcerating large numbers of young people seems to have a negative effect on the economic well-being of their communities. Places that rely most heavily on incarceration reduce the employment opportunities in their communities compared to places that deal with crime by means other than incarceration. “Areas with the most rapidly rising rates of incarceration are areas in which youths, particularly African-American youths, have had the worst earnings and employment experience.” The loss of potentially stable employees and workers—and of course, county, state, and federal taxpayers—is one of numerous invisible costs that the overuse of detention imposes on the country and on individual communities.
The fiscal costs of incarcerating youth are a cause for concern in these budget-strained times. According to Earl Dunlap, head of the National Juvenile Detention Association, the annual average cost per year of a detention bed—depending on geography and cost of living—could range from $32,000 ($87 per day) to as high as $65,000 a year ($178 per day), with some big cities paying far more. Dunlap says that the cost of building, financing, and operating a single detention bed costs the public between $1.25 and $1.5 million over a twenty-year period of time.
By contrast, a number of communities that have invested in alternatives to detention have documented the fiscal savings they achieve on a daily basis, in contrast to what they would spend per day on detaining a youth. In New York City (2001), one day in detention ($385) costs 15 times what it does to send a youth to a detention alternative ($25). In Tarrant County, Texas (2004), it costs a community 3.5 times as much to detain a youth per day ($121) versus a detention alternative ($35), and even less for electronic monitoring ($3.75).
Whether compared to alternatives in the here and now, or put to rigorous economic efficiency models that account for the long-term costs of crime and incarceration overtime, juvenile detention is not a cost-effective way of promoting public safety, or meeting detained young people’s needs.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), a non-partisan research institution that—at legislative direction—studies issues of importance to Washington State, was directed to study the cost effectiveness of the state’s juvenile justice system. WSIPP found that there had been a 43 percent increase in juvenile justice spending during the 1990s, and that the main factor driving those expenditures was the confinement of juvenile offenders. While this increase in spending and juvenile incarceration was associated with a decrease in juvenile crime, WSIPP found, “the effect of detention on lower crime rates has decreased in recent years as the system expanded. The lesson: confinement works, but it is an expensive way to lower crime rates.” The legislature directed them to take the next step, and answer the question, “Are there less expensive ways to reduce juvenile crime?”
WSIPP found that, for every dollar spent on county juvenile detention systems, $1.98 of “benefits” in terms of reduced crime and costs of crime to taxpayers was achieved. By sharp contrast, diversion and mentoring programs produced $3.36 of benefits for every dollar spent, aggression replacement training produced $10 of benefits for every dollar spent, and multi-systemic therapy produced $13 of benefits for every dollar spent. Any inefficiencies in a juvenile justice system that concentrates juvenile justice spending on detention or confinement drains available funds away from interventions that may be more effective at reducing recidivism and promoting public safety.
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