Report Pushes Advocates to Seek Structural, Not Just Financial, Changes to Juvenile Justice Systems

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The time is ripe for some states to reduce their reliance on youth incarceration, according to a report issued today by a veteran juvenile justice researcher, but that change may not lead to long-term reform unless advocates and legislators seek total realignment of juvenile justice systems.

The report – “Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment,” by Jeffrey Butts and Douglas Evans of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College – examines three strategies for reducing the number of juveniles who might be incarcerated by a state or local juvenile justice system:

Resolution: A decline in admissions to secure facilities that is brought about mostly by the will and influence of agency leaders or county or state policymakers.

Reinvestment: What happens when a state juvenile justice agency incentivizes options other than lockup by paying for those options and charging counties for the use of secure facilities. 

Realignment: A shift in the structure of a juvenile justice agency or system toward a wider array of options, including the outright closure of secure facilities and possibly the elimination of state agencies responsible for housing them.

From the cases presented in the report, “it seems that realignment strategies are likely to be more successful and more durable than either reinvestment or resolution strategies,” the report said.

Between 2000 and 2008, only five states have increased the number of juvenile offenders in secure facilities: Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Nebraska and West Virginia. The general decline in juvenile placements experienced by many states can be attributed in part to the continued drop in juvenile arrests.

In states where a strategic effort at reducing the use of residential facilities and secure confinement, reinvestment has been the main strategy employed in recent history, with four highly populated states – North Carolina, Illinois, California and Texas – either expanding funding for community alternatives, charging more for incarceration services, or both.

For example, in 2009, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission offered state funds for community-based programs to any county that would pledge to reduce commitments to the Texas Youth Commission, which operates the state-run juvenile facilities. Within a year, commitments to TYC fell by about 40 percent.

The move for reinvestment is fueled in part by a political climate in which juvenile crime rates continue a steady decline that started in the mid-1990s, while state budget shortfalls have forced legislatures to question the value of paying for incarceration, which the authors point out has not been a successful strategy for reducing recidivism.

The financial motivation for downsizing the reliance on incarceration has drawn some conservative public policy advocates into the juvenile reform tent. Right on Crime, an initiative started by the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has campaigns in 24 states. Click here to see a presentation about juvenile justice reform by Marc Levin, who heads the initiative for the Center for Effective Justice.

A number of high-profile conservatives, including Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, have expressed support for Right on Crime’s six core principles, which include the statement that “an ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders who will return to society through harnessing the power of families, charities, faith-based groups, and communities.”

Butts and Evans cast a skeptical light on the longevity of such conservative backing in the report:

“Some of the political conservatives who fueled the get-tough environment of the 1990s now endorse policies that keep incarceration at a minimum. Can advocates trust these new partners over time? Can today’s reforms be ‘locked down’ to survive the political climate and budget debates of tomorrow?”

The authors’ argument that realignment must be sought is founded partly on the fact that both of those variables – juvenile crime and fiscal health – will change at some point.

“If crime comes up when budgets are not so strangled and policymakers have money again, why would it not go back to the way things were before?” Butts mused in an interview with Youth Today about the report. “Liberals would like to see this as a sea change. I don’t think that’s the case.”

The structural change brought about by realignment “is more difficult to undo” than “procedural alterations that were designed to accommodate an existing structure,” the report said. “When system reform involved the elimination of agencies and the demolition of buildings, it is harder to go back to the old way of doing business.”

The report asserts that the durability of realignment is evidenced in “the examples described” in the report, but neither Wayne County (Detroit), Mich., nor California – the two examples of realignment presented – have experienced an uptick in crime or an increase in state dollars since the realignment was enacted.

Butts told Youth Today that the suggestion is “based on logic”; that “changing a reinvestment formula is probably easier than starting up a new state agency after the old one has been shut down.”

Wayne County began implementing realignment in 2000. The county now uses five private “care management organizations” to decide on the use of community, residential or high-security programs. When the CMOs place juveniles in an out-of-home-placement, it now relies on private programs and facilities as opposed to those operated by the state.

That the county has reduced its reliance on state-run facilities is beyond dispute. It placed 731 juveniles in state facilities in 1998; that figure dropped to 40 by 2003, and just two youths in 2010.

Whether the realignment effected a lower reliance on incarceration in general depends on what is counted. The county posted a 2010 average daily population of 468 juveniles in medium security placements, and 302 juveniles in high-security placements, according to its annual statistical report. The majority of those placements were in substance abuse or mental health treatment facilities or programs.

“We're not saying that realignment is good because reinvestment doesn't work,” Butts said, “just [that] realignment is more fixed and long term, and people shouldn’t assume that the motivation to over-incarcerate has suddenly gone away.”

To read the report, click here.