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Save Money, Save Kids: Why the JJDPA Matters

Posted in 2014, Research & Policy Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Save Money, Save Kids: Why the JJDPA Matters

Just this month, the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released a brief entitled Juveniles in Residential Placement, 2011, which includes data from a one-day census of the number of youth incarcerated in youth prisons or in private residential institutions in the United States.

According to this report, on any given day, 2,239 of the youth counted in residential placement are there for status offenses—which the report defines as “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy and incorrigibility.”

The American Correctional Association estimates that the average cost to incarcerate a youth is, $241 per day although we know that cost can be much, much higher, with some states spending upwards of $800 per day.

Using the average daily cost of incarceration, states across this country spent a combined $539,599 for one day to incarcerate kids fortruancy, incorrigibility and running away. That’s more than half a million dollars a day to lock up kids for acts that are criminal only because the person engaging in them has yet to reach the legal age of adulthood. Half a million dollars a day, none of which is spent on helping a youth address why he or she ran away, skipped school, or “acted out.”

In June we released “Safely Home”, a report that highlights “bright spots” around the country where states or counties have safely and effectively reduced youth incarceration, for kids adjudicated delinquent and for kids who engaged in status offense behaviors. In “Safely Home”, we noted that community-based programs for youth with high needs cost as little as $75 a day and could (and do) serve as effective alternatives to youth incarceration or other forms of placement outside of their homes.

Thus: it costs more than $370,000 more to incarcerate a young person versus to safely support a youth at home. In addition to the cost, kids removed from their homes and placed in institutions also aren’t getting the help they need.

Locking kids up may temporarily remove them from their communities and families but it does little to address underlying needs. Status offenses are behaviors we should respond to as expressions of unmet needs, not intolerable risks. As a youth in one community-based program once said, “Locking us up does not help us.”

Congress can most certainly help this population of kids by reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA has four “core protections”, including deinstitutionalizing status offenders, like the 2,239 who are incarcerated on any given day.

The other three core protections are just as important. Under the JJDPA, youth cannot be incarcerated or detained in adult facilities, with few exceptions due to exigent circumstances or temporary necessity (e.g., before or after court proceedings, in unsafe travel conditions, rural communities). And when they are housed in adult facilities, the JJDPA requires that youth be separated from adult inmates by both sight and sound, meaning that they cannot be housed next to them or be integrated into congregate activities like dining. Finally, the JJDPA requires states to address the overrepresentation of youth of color in their facilities and systems.

States that are out of compliance with the JJDPA compromise their federal funding under the Act. Therefore, Congress has a unique opportunity to lead and influence states to adopt juvenile justice policies and practices that reflect all that we have learned since the Act’s enactment in 1974 and its last reauthorization in 2002.

For example, the antiquated ideology that permitted states to pass laws to incarcerate kids for running away is abhorrent to most Americans today. Likewise, most states still struggle with overwhelming—and unacceptable—racial disparities of youth incarceration. The OJJDP brief cited above notes that minority youth account for a whopping 68 percent of young people in residential placement on the day of the census. Advocacy groups like the Campaign for Youth Justice and research organizations like Justice Policy Institute have adeptly and extensively documented the dangers of incarcerating youth in adult jails and prisons.

The JJDPA is the only federal law that provides specific protections for kids in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. It is the federal government’s primary way to help state juvenile justice leaders prioritize child well-being, reduce racial disparity and modestly fund programs in the community best-positioned to help youth in need realize their potential.

Congress should reauthorize the JJDPA this year. The 61,000 youth incarcerated tonight - including the 2,239 status offenders locked up for running away, being truant or incorrigible - need it more than ever.

Shaena Fazal, Esq. is the National Policy Director at Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). YAP is a national non-profit organization committed to providing cost-effective, community-based alternatives for youth and families in the juvenile justice, child welfare and behavioral health systems through direct service, advocacy and policy change. YAP was founded in 1975 and serves 12,000 families a year in 17 states.