Study: Incarcerating Hordes of Youth is Costly and Ineffective

The Annie E. Casey Foundation says that prison is no place for kids.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 05, 2011

It doesn’t pay to aggressively put children who commit crimes behind bars. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The study is titled "No Place for Kids" and uses national data to reinforce a growing consensus among experts that the current model of incarceration doesn’t do much in the way of public safety.

Though juvenile violent crime arrest rates are only marginally higher in the United States, we rely heavily on incarcerating kids. In total, 336 of every 100,000 of the world’s incarcerated youth is locked away in a U.S. prison facility. That’s nearly five times the rate of the next country on list, which is South Africa.

Even the Justice Department Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recommends a series of alternatives to traditional incarceration. Sill, the largest share of incarcerated youth– about 40 percent in total — are held in long-term youth correctional facilities operated primarily by state governments or by private firms who contract with the state.

"We have to recognize that incarceration of youth per se is toxic," Dr. Barry Krisberg says in the report. Krisberg is the former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency  and a faculty member at the University of California-Berkeley. 

"So we need to reduce incarceration of young people to the very small dangerous few. And we’ve got to recognize that if we lock up a lot of kids, it’s going to increase crime."

For example, researchers found that since 2007, when Texas authorities began to decrease the jailed youth population, juvenile crime fell by ten percent. Juvenile arrests fell by another nine percent.

The report concludes that there is now overwhelming evidence that the wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a failed strategy for combating youth crime. The arguments are that incarceration:

  • Does not reduce future offending by confined youth: Within three years of release, roughly three-quarters of youth are rearrested; up to 72 percent, depending on individual state measures, are convicted of a new offense. 
  • Does not enhance public safety: States which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than states which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly.
  • Wastes taxpayer dollars: Nationwide, states continue to spend the bulk of their juvenile justice budgets – $5 billion in 2008 – to confine and house young offenders in incarceration facilities despite evidence showing that alternative in-home or community-based programs can deliver equal or better results for a fraction of the cost.
  • Exposes youth to violence and abuse: In nearly half of the states, persistent maltreatment has been documented since 2000 in at least one state-funded institution. One in eight confined youth reported being sexually abused by staff or other youth and 42 percent feared physical attack according to reports released in 2010.

The report comes at a time when many cash-strapped states are looking at ways to cut costs. According to the report, states spend an average of $88,000 per youth in detention.