The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed
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Costly reliance on incarceration fails kids and communities, Casey report finds

The incarceration of juvenile offenders in ineffective and violence-plagued correctional institutions harms juveniles and fails to deter youth crime while costing taxpayers $88,000 per youth annually, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

The report, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration,” is based on decades of research and new data, and documents 40 years of scandals and lawsuits over abusive conditions in juvenile facilities.

It also notes a recent trend in which states have closed dozens of facilities over the last four years and offers six recommendations for how state and local officials can alter incarceration patterns and improve system outcomes.    

The report concludes that locking up juveniles: 

  • 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 that 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.

Confinement also reduces future educational and employment success. Youth incarcerated at age 16 or earlier are 26 percent less likely to graduate high school by age 19, according to one study. Other studies show that incarcerated adolescents can face long-lasting reductions in employment.

According to the report about 60,500 youth – disproportionately youth of color – were confined each night in correctional facilities or residential programs in 2007, the year of the last official count. Roughly 40 percent were held in prison-like correctional facilities run by states or firms contracted by states.

Budget crises and abuse scandals have led states to retreat from juvenile incarceration, with more than 50 corrections facilities in 18 states closed since 2007.

The number of youth confined in residential facilities declined 24 percent and the number of those incarcerated in long-term secure-care correctional institutions plummeted 41 percent between 1997 and 2007. 

The same time period saw an across-the-board decrease in juvenile crime rates, including a 27 percent drop in juvenile arrests for serious violent crimes.

States that decreased juvenile confinement rates most sharply (40 percent or more) saw a greater drop in juvenile violent crime arrest rates than states that increased their youth confinement rates or decreased them more modestly (less than 40 percent).

Nevertheless our nation’s heavy investment in correctional confinement continues despite powerful evidence showing that non-residential programs deliver equal or better results for a fraction of the cost.

This report highlights the challenges facing the field of youth corrections and offers six key recommendations that can alter youth incarceration patterns and improve system outcomes.

The report’s recommendations are to:

  • Limit eligibility for correctional placements to serious offenders who are a public-safety risk;
  • Invest in promising non-residential alternatives;
  • Change the financial incentives that encourage overreliance on correction placements;
  • Adopt best-practice reforms for managing youth offenders that limit unnecessary commitments and reduce confinement populations;
  • Replace large conventional juvenile corrections institutions with small, treatment-oriented facilities for the dangerous few; and
  • Collect better data to measure outcomes.

The No Place for Kidsissue brief, full report and additional state-level data can be found on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s website.