Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Economy Forces States to Rethink Juvenile Justice Policies, Priorities

The “tough on crime” movement of the 1990s ushered in a wave of harsh juvenile justice practices across the U.S., and the philosophy for dealing with juvenile offenders shifted from rehabilitative to punitive.

Children were tagged with dehumanizing labels like “super predator” and “incorrigible,” and lawmakers quickly responded to an anticipated epidemic of juvenile crime by lowering the age at which youthful offenders could be tried as adults (in some states as low as 14 years old). Such juveniles were often dumped into overcrowded, violent adult prisons where they had two choices: become hardened and violent themselves or be preyed upon and victimized.

Of course this knee-jerk response to juvenile crime had devastating consequences for youths who were swept up in the juvenile justice and adult prison systems. Some children died in custody in well-publicized cases, while others, lacking rehabilitative opportunities, evolved from juvenile delinquents into adult criminals.

More recently, as states verge on the brink of financial collapse due to the economic downturn, saner minds appear to be prevailing as evidenced by a growing number of states rolling back many of the punitive juvenile justice policies of the 1990s, according to a March 16, 2011 report by the Campaign for Youth Justice (CYJ).

The CYJ report found that every year, approximately 250,000 offenders under age 18 are prosecuted as adults. In 2009 nearly 3,000 juveniles were confined in adult prisons, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Incarcerating youth in adult prison is the most expensive option that consistently produces the worst results,” said CYJ report author Neelum Arya. Connecticut knows this all too well. In the wake of a 17-year-old prisoner’s suicide in an adult facility, state lawmakers passed a law that defined anyone under age 18 to be a juvenile for purposes of prosecution. The law goes into effect in 2012.

In Illinois, 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors will be prosecuted in juvenile court. Likewise, under a 2011 Mississippi law, offenders who are age 17 or younger will remain under juvenile court jurisdiction unless they are charged with murder, rape or armed robbery. Massachusetts, which considers 17-year-olds to be adults, and North Carolina – one of two states to automatically remand 16- and 17-year-olds to adult court – are considering similar reforms.

North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, facing a 10 percent budget cut in FY 2012, has eliminated 75 beds from the state’s seven juvenile facilities. In June 2011, Texas Youth Commission officials announced the closure of three juvenile facilities – the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility, Crocket State School and Ron Jackson Unit II. Texas has worked to reduce and reform its juvenile justice system following a major sex abuse and conditions of confinement scandal in 2007. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.18; Feb. 2008, p.1].

Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington have made it more difficult to transfer youths from juvenile to adult court, according to the CYJ report. Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania and Virginia have enacted legislation barring the placement of juveniles in adult facilities while awaiting trial and sentencing.

Juvenile facilities cost more to operate than adult prisons because they must offer education, counseling and other rehabilitation programs, but they also produce lower recidivism rates and, therefore, lower long-term costs to the public, Arya noted. On the other hand, studies have consistently shown that juveniles sent to adult prisons are far more likely to commit future crimes than those who remain in juvenile facilities.

Unfortunately, “there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that state-run juvenile corrections systems can be anything other than very expensive, ineffective and scandal-prone,” said Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which promotes alternatives to incarceration for youthful offenders. It seems that budget-conscious lawmakers are starting to agree, since a growing number of states are seeking to push responsibility for their juvenile justice systems to the local level.

In California, for example, a 2007 law requiring the release of non-violent juvenile offenders resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of incarcerated youths from 10,000 in 2005 to a mere 1,200 in 2011. Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposes closing the state’s four juvenile facilities by 2014 and dividing the money among the state’s 58 counties to operate local juvenile centers. An alternative proposal would leave a state-run facility open and allow counties to choose between running their own programs or paying to send juveniles to the state facility.

Several other states, including Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, New York and Pennsylvania, are following suit. Ohio has cut the number of youths in state juvenile facilities from 1,800 in 2007 to 736 in 2011. In Alabama, the average daily population for the state’s Department of Youth Services dropped from 1,084 in 2007 to 582 in March 2011 – a 46 percent decrease.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is seeking ways to reduce the amount of time that youths are incarcerated, “especially based upon current research indicating that longer stays in juvenile facilities do not appear to reduce offending, and for low-risk offenders, institutional placement increases recidivism.”

New York has been under pressure to improve its juvenile justice system after a 2009 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice following a 15-year-old boy’s death found that youths in the state’s juvenile facilities were subjected to excessive force. State and federal officials recently entered into a settlement agreement to make improvements. [See related article in this issue of PLN, p. 46].

New York had approximately 627 juveniles in state custody as of January 2011, down from 2,313 in 2000-2001. New York City accounts for more than half of those youthful offenders at an annual cost of $270,000 each. Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing to close the state’s juvenile facilities, over opposition due to the job losses that would result.

However, local leaders agree with Cuomo’s plan. Local juvenile lockups with state funding would be more effective and maintain family and community ties for young offenders rather than sending them hundreds of miles upstate, noted John Feinblatt, the Criminal Justice Coordinator for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Bringing kids back to the city does not mean bringing kids back to New York City streets,” said Feinblatt. “It doesn’t mean that there are some kids that won’t be incarcerated. Some of them will be, because they need to be.”

But the number of juveniles who need to be imprisoned is dwindling, in part because states have found it is simply too expensive to keep them in secure facilities. “There’s a movement in the entire nation to not lock kids up,” observed Adams County, Mississippi juvenile justice department director Glen Arnold.

A July 2011 report by the National Juvenile Justice Network, titled “Bringing Youth Home: A National Movement to Increase Public Safety, Rehabilitate Youth and Save Money,” found that at least 16 states are closing or downsizing their juvenile justice facilities due to budget reductions, legislation, legal challenges and reform efforts. The report examined “states that have reduced their juvenile facility populations and are now not only reaping the rewards of new found funds that can be redirected into more effective community-based services for youth, but also seeing a better return on their investment in terms of juvenile rehabilitation and public safety.”

The question remains as to what will happen when the economic crisis ends, budgets increase, and states once again have funds available to lock up more juvenile offenders.

Sources: USA Today,,,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login