zero tolerance policies

Youth incarceration in the United States may be slowing, but it’s not getting any cheaper for taxpayers. Keeping young offenders behind bars incurs up to $21 billion in long-term costs every year, according to a report out from the Justice Policy Institute.

The report, titled “Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration,” calculated the direct and indirect social costs of keeping minors behind bars in 49 states. Illinois, Justice Policy researchers found, spends about $111,000 per year on each of the nearly 1,300 youth housed in detention facilities across the state. That means that in the midst of a crippling budget crisis, the state spends about $395,000 every day to preserve a system experts have increasingly disavowed as ineffective for keeping young people out of trouble.

“We’re really just starting to wrap our arms around the scope of this problem as it relates to monetizing, and the numbers are staggering,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute. “Pulling this research together will hopefully give state capitols the opportunity to have a more incumbent discussion about where they’re sending their resources.”

Following up on a similar Justice Policy report released in 2009, “Sticker Shock” looks beyond the immediate costs of youth incarceration to consider the costs the system incurs in the long-run. Namely, the potential tax revenue lost by cutting off future job prospects, and the public assistance funding inevitably demanded by ex-youth offenders.

Elizabeth Clarke, head of the Juvenile Justice Initiative
Elizabeth Clarke, head of the Juvenile Justice Initiative

This opportunity cost, while difficult to quantify, is potentially enormous. A Columbia University study cited in the report estimated that for all Americans aged 16-24 who are disconnected from education and work—a population of about 6.7 million, whom it identifies as “opportunity youth”—the lost economic potential can be as much as $4.7 trillion. And removing youth from their home environments and placing them in detention centers, advocates argue, severs their opportunities for education and employment.

“It’s important to consider the real psycho-social impacts of [youth incarceration]—not just how it effects the individual and his or her family, but also how it devastates entire communities and society as a whole,” said Xavier McElrath-Bey, an advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. McElrath-Bey, who grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, was sentenced to 25 years in prison at the age of 13 for a gang-related murder. “Nothing good comes from removing children from their homes, which is why incarceration should be they very last resort for children.”

Tying into the cost of youth detention is an outpouring of evidence that between high recidivism rates and a lack of attention to rehabilitation, incarceration is counterproductive to reducing youth crime. While only about 80 percent of youth corrections agencies across the U.S. track recidivism, giving us an imperfect scope of the phenomenon, representatives of the Council of State Governments say it’s not uncommon for re-arrest rates for youth returning from confinement to be as high as 75 percent within three years of release.

Recognizing this emerging wave of research, many state governments—Illinois among them—have nudged their criminal justice policies away from locking up underage offenders during the past decade. The result has been a 46 percent drop in youth incarceration across the country between 2001 and 2011, consistent with a steady decline in youth crime rates.

Legislators in Illinois, for their part, have taken gradual steps in recent years to ease the scale of youth justice from punitive to rehabilitative measures. The Illinois Department of Human Services launched Redeploy Illinois in 2004, a program that funds rehabilitation programs aimed at keeping youth offenders in their home communities. In 2011 the State Assembly passed a law requiring that judges only sentence youth offenders to prison terms if no reasonable alternatives are available. And in 2013, the state raised the minimum age to try defendants in adult courts from 17 to 18. As a result, Illinois’s youth prison population more than halved in the past decade, forcing the state to close two detention facilities at Joliet and Murphysboro in 2012.

But the decline hasn’t been fast enough, says Elizabeth Clarke of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative.

“Here and there the country has been taking haphazard steps toward restorative justice, and that’s encouraging, but it hasn’t happened in any unified way,” said Clarke, president of the Evanston-based advocacy group. “Illinois is changing course along the same lines as the rest of the country, but internationally we’re still way behind—our youth incarceration rates are still five times as high as the next country, which is the UK.”

Through programs like Redeploy Illinois, Clarke said, Chicago has the potential to be a poster child for a youth justice system that’s both more effective and runs a lower cost to taxpayers.

“We have a girls’ detention facility out in Warrenville, where it’s approaching $200,000 per bed. Meanwhile, the average for a Redeploy program is about $10,000 per child, and the outcomes are better,” Clarke said. “Yes, it’s cheaper, but it shouldn’t be sticker shock that’s driving these changes. It’s about looking at individualized situations. And the more you keep these kids in their home communities, and away from prison facilities, the better the outcome for everyone.”

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