Less Cost More Safety: a New Spin on Juvenile Justice

Studies have shown that most of what Americans think about youth and crime is wrong. More and more Americans are convinced that their own lives and property are in danger at the hands of menacing youth. But Juvenile delinquency hasn't reached the proportions people think it has. In fact, some studies have shown that youth crime has taken a decidedly downward turn.

In the face of adult's fears of youth, many politicians have adopted a "zero tolerance" approach that is successful in rallying voters during election time. Still, most have done little to actually patch up the holes in the nations Juvenile Justice institutions. Heavy-handed responses to crime, such as those that build new prisons and send juveniles to adult courts, have failed at curbing existing youth crime. Measures that serve to prevent delinquency at its core -- those that emphasize educating and respecting youth -- are often described as lenient and ineffective, but it has long been believed that they are in fact more effective. Until now, however, there hasn't been enough evidence to support this belief.

"Harrassment" - Video Action Fund (VAF)

That's where a newly released study comes in. Less Cost, More Safety: Guiding Lights for Reform in Juvenile Justice, released earlier this month, proves there are alternative means of rehabilitating youth offenders. It shows that placing less emphasis on punishing juvenile offenders and more on rehabilitating them makes sense for a variety of reasons. While it's frustrating that the study focuses on elements of cost and "public safety" and never on the lives of the youth going through the system, the numbers it presents are heartening.

In this follow up to Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime (What Works and What Doesn't), Richard A. Mendel of the American Youth Policy Forum uses a flurry of numbers to show the potential for productive change in the juvenile justice system. Mendel is critical of recent reforms in this system, which he feels have ignored successful, and more cost-effective means of stopping juvenile delinquency by addressing its true origins.

»According to the Justice Policy Institute, since 1981, Florida prosecutors have been sending large numbers of kids of the adult system. Yet Florida's violent juvenile crime rate is up 54% higher than the national average.

»In Florida prisons, youth are 21 times more likely to report being assaulted or injured as teens in the juvenile system

»Nationally, children in adult jails and prisons are 5 times more likely to be raped, twice as likely to be beaten by staff members, 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than youth in juvenile programs.

»A National Justice Department study showed that the suicide rate of youth in adult prisons is 7.7 times higher than that of youth in juvenile detention centers.

According to "virtually every study examining recidivism [arrest after rehabilitation] among youth sentenced to juvenile 'training schools' in the past three decades," the study says, 50 to 70 percent of offenders are arrested within one or two years after release. You could define training schools as "correctional institutions typically housing 100 to 500 juvenile offenders." Or you could simply call them boot camp. Whatever you decide to call it, it's expensive: approximately $200 more per young person, than the alternatives examined in the study.

One alternative program described in the study was in the state Missouri. The Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS) functioned on a budget of about $94 per 10-17 year old in implementing its alternative approach to youth rehabilitation. The eight states surrounding Missouri allot approximately $140 per young person for measures that rely heavily on incarceration. Unlike Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Tennessee, only 180 Missouri youths are placed in heavily locked facilities. The other seventy five percent are assigned to non-residential and community programs, group homes, and residential facilities deemed "less secure." Community based programs such as the Star program in Gladstone, Missouri allow youth to continue their high school educations without interruption.

In some parts of the Missouri system, youth receive a combination of academic education and counseling from 8am to 3pm every weekday. They also receive extensive 24-hour a day therapy, heavy family outreach and counseling under the supervision of "well-qualified and highly-trained staff." The "un-prison" like atmosphere allows youth to spend six 50 minute periods of in which they break into groups for GED training or classwork towards their high school diplomas. They are also able to work together on special projects or current events. Individual lessons in a computer learning lab are also provided.

These youth are also given opportunities to spend time in the community as they build social and behavioral skills. Under close supervision by staff, residents are able to go on field trips and undertake community service projects. Some youth are even given the opportunity to perform jobs with local nonprofit or governmental agencies in an effort to gain valuable work experience.

How successful is the Missouri DYS? Take a look at the statistics: according to the study, "only 11 percent of young people released from DYS custody or transferred from a residential to a non-secure community program were rearrested or returned to juvenile custody within one year." A study of five thousand youth discharged from the Missouri DYS in the 1980's showed that only 15 percent were arrested as adults. The DYS is able to intervene in a budding career of crime while keeping young people, who pose no serious threat to society, from being put in adult prisons.

The study proves that a meaningful response to crime doesn't have to mean building new prisons, or sending of juveniles to adult courts. Unfortunately, although these alternative approaches have been proven to work effectively, Missouri and other areas of the country that have chosen this avenue are in a vast minority.

As a society, we must maintain trust that our young can and will change and grow. We can only hope that those in power will observe these and other findings and make some real changes to allow them to do so. Regardless, the numbers now exist to support larger shifts. If nothing else, it is at least good to know hundreds of youth in states like Missouri are being treated as more than just tax cost and threats to public safety.

To read more about Juvenile Justice issues, check out our Youth Rights section.

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