The Economics of Juvenile Justice

Our Constitution sets forth in the preamble that one of the goalsJudge Steven Teske of government is to “promote the general welfare.” This requires good policy decisions by our leaders that promote a strong economy.

We are fortunate living in the land of the “free and the brave”—to exercise freedoms others only dream of. And many have money in their pockets to feed their family. Is it because we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world that we take economics for granted when it comes to criminal and juvenile justice issues? And that by spending more money to build prisons we can jail our way to safety?

When my Mom accused me of wrongdoing—most I did, but some I did not—the feeling of anger would rise up in me during those few and far between innocent moments. With a self-righteous tone I would blurt out “I am innocent. You’re not fair!”  My Mom was quick to say that she learned just enough law to know that the Constitution did not apply to her unreasonable searches and seizures, bias decisions and unfair inquisitions.

When that didnt work, I pulled out the guilt gun and shot her with the “But Mom—I would’nt lie. Don’t you trust me?”

“It has nothing to do with trust,” she would say. “I care enough for you not to trust you completely.”

My Mom’s theory that absolute trust destroys relationships has proven to be a fact of life for me and for others.  Whether as a parent or spouse, believing that loving someone and complete trust are the same will in time result in taking our loved one for granted—that they will never lie to us, cheat on us, or take advantage of us. When we think, talk and act this way, we take for granted their love and become lazy. We stop asking questions of our kids when they don’t come home on time, or don’t bring their friends by the house.

Many times in court parents exclaim with the same indignation I showed my Mom. “My baby would never do that!” they say. Yeah—tell my Mom that!

For years we have heard just enough policymakers and political pundits tell us that we must get tough on crime. So, we build prisons for adults and kids. We have been doing it for so long its become a way of life—like a tradition. Like our love for our spouse or kids, we trust our way of life and believe there is no need to question that which we trust. So we take it for granted and make incarceration the answer to criminal justice.

We take incarceration for granted to such an extent that we pump millions of dollars into the youth and adult prison construction industry and we call it an investment thinking we get a good return in community safety. But, do we?

Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice is budgeted $300 million of which nearly two-thirds is used to operate out of home facilities. It can cost more than $90,000 per bed per year. What’s the investment? More than half are convicted within three years of release.

Some respond “that’s not bad considering these are the hard core kids who are difficult to rehabilitate.”

Wrong. Over half of the facilities are filled with low risk youth, misdemeanants and status offenders. Our youth prisons–the razor wire facilities–include 39 percent low risk and 37 percent medium risk youth.

The irrefutable research shows that placing low risk youth alongside high risk youth will turn low risk youth into serious high risk delinquents. Yet, the general public believes otherwise because they trust the system. Tey take for granted that the millions invested in youth facilities are protecting the community.

Georgia is not alone. Many states mirror the inefficient use of taxpayers monies when it comes to troubled youth.

As I understand the concept of investment, I doubt our juvenile justice systems would last long if it were publicly traded on the stock market. 

Recently, my court was visited by a group from our State Advisory Group, Governor’s Office for Children and Families, to conduct a site visit and review the status of an alternative “deep-end” program we call “Second Chance.” These kids were facing up to five years in a youth prison.

In attendance were five graduates of the program: armed robbery with a gun, robbery by force, attempted murder and aggravated assault cases. A couple of these kids were facing a mandatory minimum of 20 years in adult court.

They told their story of redemption, of being snatched from the jaws of prison and being delivered into a world of surveillance, cognitive restructuring, family counseling, after-school programming, community service, multi-systemic therapy, drug counseling and getting their high school diploma. Today they are employed and in college or entering the military.

As I heard their testimonies, I did the math. At a cost of $90,000 annually to house each kid is $450,000. The recommendation for each kid at sentencing was three years. That’s a cost savings to the state of $1,350,000. It cost us only $40,000. That’s a cost savings of $1,310,000.

Let’s not forget that, if committed, four out of five of these kids would have committed another crime after their release from prison. Now they are paying taxes and contributing to the revenues of our state to help “promote the general welfare” of our citizens—and these were scary kids!

Dont get me wrong. I have to send some kids away because this program, despite its intensive level of surveillance and services, is not going to protect the community. It’s a sad fact of life for some, but it shouldn’t be for over half the population now housed in our facilities who are low risk to hurt others.

In Clayton County, our commitment rates have declined 43 percent by implementing evidence based practices alongside intensive surveillance mechanisms. Our filings have declined 67 percent.

The economics of juvenile justice is simple. The more we get smart about who gets committed, the more money we save to help kids become taxpayers.

Now thats a good investment strategy! 


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