This brief analyzes the economic costs of youth confinement in the juvenile justice system nationwide and considers its debilitating effects on young people’s present and future well-being. Further, the report presents the case for exploring community-based options for system-involved youth — thus reducing reliance on out-of-home confinement.
The report offers insight into the potential drivers of increased confinement costs — despite significant juvenile justice improvements, including decreases in arrests and declining populations. One such driver of cost is the continued use of harmful practices such as solitary confinement.
While juvenile justice reform packages have contributed to decreased numbers of incarcerated youth, racial disparities persist. Twice as many youth of color are detained and committed as compared to white youth. In addition, changes in release policies in response to COVID-19 have disproportionately benefitted white youth, thereby driving even higher rates of racial disparity. The report makes the case that youth confinement is fueled by racially-biased practices and — as a result — closing facilities is the most effective means of promoting true equity.
The brief concludes by offering practical recommendations for state policymakers to significantly reduce — and eventually eliminate — the use of incarceration in dealing with youth in the juvenile justice system. Policymakers are encouraged to reduce spending on confinement and shift funds to promising community-based alternatives that keep youth close to home and support their educational and personal development. Confinement facilities that remain in operation must improve their treatment of youth in custody. These facilities should reflect the foundational principles rooted in trauma-informed and healing-centered treatment approaches. They should be staffed with well-qualified and supportive personnel who develop partnerships with a youth’s family and community and tailor their programming based on principles of positive youth development.
Nearly 40,000 pre-and post-adjudicated youths remain detained or committed in a residential facility, with nearly 60% held for a nonviolent offense.
A presumption of guilt
Black, Native American and Latino youth are incarcerated at 5, 3, and 1.7 times the rate of white youth, respectively, with disparities increasing as youth move deeper into the justice system.
The high cost of poor outcomes
The average cost of the most expensive confinement option for a young person in 48 states was $588 per day, or $214,620 per year.
A cause for concern
Incarceration as a juvenile increases the probability of recidivism as an adult by between 22 and 26%.
Statements & Quotations
Extensive research reveals that secure youth incarceration increases the likelihood of recidivism and harms educational attainment, lifetime wages and future health outcomes for youth.
Policymakers need to focus on investing in interventions that prevent youth from becoming justice involved in the first place, developing community-based options that can hold youth accountable and reducing the length of stay for those youth who are held in secure confinement.