In Juvenile Justice, the Positive Consequences of Fiscal Realities

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John Lash“Hawaii is spending nearly $200,000 per bed per year to house juvenile offenders, most of whom got in trouble for non-violent low-level crimes,” is the staggering first sentence of a recent article in The Honolulu Civil Beat. The first thing that occurred to me when I read this was that we could pay someone $50,000 to be the kid’s companion and given another $50,000 towards his education, therapy or other services he needs and still come out way ahead.

The estimate came from a working group that included members of the three governmental branches, local politicians, legal officials, law enforcement and other “key justice stakeholder groups.” They were assisted by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project.

Hawaii, like a lot of states, has been forced to reconsider the efficacy of such wasteful spending practices following years of economic hardship. The tough on crime policies born in the 90s have run smack into the fiscal realities of the recession, with some surprisingly positive consequences for juvenile justice reform.

As seen in the Hawaii Reporter, the state’s governor, Neil Abercrombie, along with the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, Senate President and House Speaker, in August, “charged the inter-branch, bipartisan working group with developing policy recommendations to maximize the effectiveness of the ... system, improve outcomes for youth and families, and ensure policies and practices are grounded in data and research.” The results of this effort were released in the form of a report that outlines 24 specific strategies for getting the most benefit from limited resources.

They found that nearly 70 percent of the kids are being held for nonviolent crimes, and that “[d]espite longer stays and higher costs, three-quarters of youth leaving Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility [HYCF] are re-adjudicated delinquent or reconvicted within three years.” Included among the group’s suggestions:

  • focusing HYCF bed space on more serious juvenile offenders;
  • clarifying and strengthening juvenile parole and reentry practices;
  • clearly defining diversion options for lower-level youth;
  • maximizing probation effectiveness in every circuit;
  • equipping probation officers with tools to manage youth behavior;
  • increasing collaboration with partner agencies; and
  • sustaining effective practices.

With these and other practices the state can hope to save millions of dollars in the coming years and close down beds that will no longer be needed. More importantly, kids will get a chance to be treated and overseen in community-based programs that are not only more effective but also more humane.

It is a strange twist of the nation’s fate that it has taken the economic downturn of the last half decade to force governments and political parties to look beyond rhetoric, sound bites and easy solutions. It is the silver lining of the cloud we have been living under, and my hope is that we’ll be able to hang onto the gains made during these hard times as the economy improves.