Time to Reform Juvenile Justice

by Chris Braunlich

If the evidence showed that taking a particular medication actually made the disease worse, would you keep on taking it?

Of course not.

But a recent paper, Juvenile Justice Reform, co-issued by Justice Fellowship, Right On Crime, and the Thomas Jefferson Institute makes the case that, when it comes to Virginia’s juvenile justice system, that’s been exactly the prescription for too many years.

In fact, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) admits in its latest guidelines that “current policies and practices are not effective in preparing juveniles to be successful citizens in the community.”

According to DJJ, “after controlling for offense and risk and protective factors … the probability of a juvenile’s re-arrest increases by 32.7 percent for every additional year” that a young person remains incarcerated in the Commonwealth.

In short, the longer someone stays in the system, the more likely they are to return to the system. Some might argue that, after all, these are hardened criminal youth who deserve to be locked away.

But are they? More than 11 percent of youthful prisoners are there on a misdemeanor offense, and more than a third are incarcerated on non-person felonies – crimes that didn’t include confrontations with another person. One of the largest such crimes is larceny.

In fact, more youths were jailed in Virginia on a primary conviction of larceny than any other offense. And while that may sound a bit frightening, consider the fact that Virginia has the lowest threshold in the nation for felony larceny: $200.

That $200 threshold hasn’t changed since 1980, with the result that theft of a ubiquitous cell phone or a college textbook now meets the definition of felony larceny, with a much higher potential prison sentence. If the definition had simply kept pace with inflation, that threshold would be $565 today. Put another way: That $200 had purchasing power of $63.29 in 1980. Is that really our idea of felony larceny and a community risk?

The result is that youths are jailed in Virginia for crimes that would be misdemeanors in every other state, driving up our incarceration rates and costs.

More importantly: Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one. One result: Virginia’s rearrest rate three years after release from juvenile correctional centers is 80 percent, even while recidivism rates in several other states is declining.

This process is expensive. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year. In other states, the daily cost of incarcerating a single youth is about $240; in Virginia, the cost soars to more than $400.

To its credit, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has already begun instituting reforms – closing most of the big facilities and opening wings in their remaining facilities with a high premium on workers trained in both security and rehabilitation.

But the paper issued by three center-right organizations suggests going the extra mile by decentralizing the juvenile justice system even further. A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. Parental communication may be severed for disciplinary reasons, and home-based faith institutions are unable work early-on to help transition youth into jobs, school, and a better life.

This is particularly the case for those with mental health disorders. More than 65 percent of youths admitted to the Reception and Diagnostic Center for the Department of Juvenile Justice had symptoms of at least one mental health disorder and more than three quarters needed mental health treatment. While services are available in prison, they are far more effective if the opportunity exists to establish early relationships with the mental health providers in the communities to which a youth will return.

Yet, even though many local facilities are in position to provide youths with more effective reentry tools, education, family support systems, and job connections, a perverse financial disincentive exists to ship the offenders far away from home. While localities do not pay the cost of youths committed to the state, they are responsible to pay most of the cost of local detention or community-based treatment.

Thus, the state makes the greater investment in centralized structures which are less effective, while making only a minor investment in community-based programs that are demonstrated to reduce recidivism by seven to 22 percent.

High costs. High recidivism rates. Less effectiveness. For conservatives, if a government program costs more than the average and isn’t having the desired outcomes, it should be ripe for review.

So, too, is Virginia’s juvenile justice system.

This column was published originally in the Jefferson Policy Journal. Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessary reflect the opinions of the Institute or its Board of Directors. He may be reached at c.Braunlich@att.net.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

14 responses to “Time to Reform Juvenile Justice

  1. Of course – a centrally relevant question is how the juvenile get drawn into the criminal justice system to start with?

  2. folks do see the ironic juxtaposition of this I hope.

    We have given up on spending good money after bad on trying to educate those from dysfunctional families…

    but we’re willing to spend money (free stuff) once they’re drawn in the criminal justice system to – ” Thus, the state makes the greater investment in centralized structures which are less effective, while making only a minor investment in community-based programs that are demonstrated to reduce recidivism by seven to 22 percent.”

    so .. they’ll spend out the wazoo to try to rehabilitate the “youth” but forget trying to pay for “investments” at the K-12 level … just wait until after K-12.. and they get put in prison – to start the “expensive” rehabilitation process.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over “right-leaning” …… “solutions”.

    and if it was suggested that more money be spent on “dysfunctional” kids in K-12 or to get them enrolled in “free” technical education after K-12 – those would be “failed liberal free-stuff” solutions. right?

    it’s “free stuff” if liberals support it – it’s an “investment” if Conservatives support it, eh?

  3. All public policies should be revisited periodically to see how well they work in what may be a changed environment. Theft of another’s property is not to be ignored. We should not close our eyes to these offenses. But a theft of $80 simply should not be a felony today. It should be a misdemeanor.

  4. I think I’m starting to see the light here.

    If a kid is from a “dysfunctional” economically disadvantaged family –

    and he is failing in school – we need to intervene forthwith and send him to these ” Reception and Diagnostic Center for the Department of Juvenile Justice ” and get them rehabilitation quicker, sooner without the obligatory prison sentence…

    that’s all I can get out of Bacon’s thinking on this.

    He says’s we’ve done all we can do with the really chronic kids an dysfunctional families, etc, and need to move on and not spend extra money trying to do anything.

    .. just wait until they end up in prison – THEN spend a bunch of money getting them “rehabilitated”.

    right?

    where am I going wrong on this?

  5. LarryG, you ask, “where am I going wrong on this?” I don’t say you are wrong, but I cannot recognize Jim’s argument in what you say he said.

    Your take on it is, “He says we’ve done all we can do with the really chronic kids and dysfunctional families, etc, and need to move on and not spend extra money trying to do anything… just wait until they end up in prison – THEN spend a bunch of money getting them “rehabilitated”.”

    Actually, what he said was, “Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one. . . . A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. . . .

    And, he notes, the Virginia system encourages this wrong outcome because of a fundamental design flaw. “A perverse financial disincentive exists to ship the offenders far away from home. While localities do not pay the cost of youths committed to the state, they are responsible to pay most of the cost of local detention or community-based treatment. Thus, the state makes the greater investment in centralized structures which are less effective . . ..”

    Where does “it’s “free stuff” if liberals support it – it’s an “investment” if Conservatives support it, eh?” get argued by Jim in this post? In fact his only use of the word “investment” is when he contrasts “centralized structures” with “community-based programs” and it’s the latter alternative that he supports! I can’t see how fixing Jim’s ‘perverse financial disincentive’ becomes abandoning “the really chronic kids and dysfunctional families”?

    You add, “If a kid is from a “dysfunctional” economically disadvantaged family – and he is failing in school – we need to intervene forthwith and send him [to get Department of Juvenile Justice] rehabilitation quicker . . . that’s all I can get out of Bacon’s thinking on this. . . . just wait until they end up in prison – THEN spend a bunch of money getting them “rehabilitated”.” Seems to me he recommends precisely AGAINST the outcome you attribute to him.

    • Ack! I just realized that I forgot to give by-line credit to Chris Braunlich for this op-ed. I did append the attribution to Chris at the very bottom, and credit the Jefferson Policy Institute, which originally published this piece, but obviously some readers missed it. My apologies all around.

  6. actually I’m going back to his prior blog posts on education where Jim essentially opines that we cannot “fix” economically disadvantaged kids in “dysfunctional” and culturally crippled familial situations.

    In other words – Jim feels a lot of the kids cannot be successfully taught and there’s not much we can do when they are in such circumstances
    … then later.. in blog posts like this – he opines that we need to “reform” our juvenile criminal justice system because …..

    so aren’t these the same kids he says we can’t help in K-12?

    or am I confused as to Jim’s view between economically disadvantaged kids in K-12 and the juvenile justice system?

    • Larry, that’s right, not every kid can be saved — unless, perhaps, you removed him from his dysfunctional domestic environment at one or two months old and found a caring foster care family to place him in. Millions of kids can be saved, and those are the ones we should focus on.

  7. re: ” Millions of kids can be saved, and those are the ones we should focus on”

    we agree on that but that statement does not square with your previous statement about economically disadvantaged kids from dysfunctional families …. which I can go get some quotes if you want me to – or you can own them without me having to go get them.

    Why would we say we can’t help many of those kids – no matter the money or program (like Pre-K or Title 1) and then later laud the efforts to the criminal justice system in trying to “rehabilitate” these same kids once they’ve graduated – functionally illiterate, unemployment, and end up in jail?

    You know they counsel you in a lot of fields that if you catch a problem early – and fix it – even though expensive – it’s STILL much cheaper than waiting and trying to fix it downstream.

    An error in concept or design is cheap to fix – compared to trying to fix it after constructed or manufactured.

    it’s the same with human capital.

    Don’t make it a moral issue. Just acknowledge that it’s an enormous fiscal issue – and one that most folks who call themselves fiscal conservatives would, even if they hated the idea of why we have these populations of hard-to-educare folks, that we do acknowledge that we DO OWN the problem if we are going to provide entitlements, prison, and prison-recovery programs…. downstream.

    tens of thousands of dollars on prison and prison recovery programs – but we can’t spend a fraction of that on education for the economically disadvantaged in K-12?

    If you don’t like Pre-K – FINE – but that’s not an excuse to walk away. That’s a mandate to find what does work – and to do it. What is that such an impossible task but prison-recovery programs are not?

  8. you know – if you want me to agree that some folks should not have kids – I’m totally in agreement.

    We have a society where the social norms highly prize families.

    and there is a certain mindset that those who don’t have kids have fallen short – and so virtually everyone – no matter their own education and financial status aspires to have a family.

    I always wonder why anyone actually has justifiable confidence that they can financially support children – and bring them up to be contributing members of society.

    It takes some arrogance for anyone to think ahead of time, that they’d make a good parent and would be able to properly care for another human being – loving them because they are your own – we know – this can fail – in many ways – and does.

    so surely we don’t want the govt judging who is competent to be a parent or not, right?

    • State laws require investigations of, and home studies for, individuals or couples wishing to adopt children. While that doesn’t guarantee good parenting nor does the absence of a background check necessarily mean problems ahead, the government does indeed judge who is competent to be a parent. I’m not sure we want to extend this as a prerequisite for couples having unprotected sex. But maybe, there is something that can be learned from the government’s/nonprofits’ involvement in adoptions.

      • we’d actually get the govt involved in deciding who should have kids?

        seriously?

        I’m agog! Most here castigate the govt in almost everything it does!

      • Wow. I agree with both of you. The government already has to deal with when to take kids away from incompetent or abusive parents, and yes there are lessons there for couples who don’t have kids yet. But I’d prefer to leave the advice to young couples in the hands of Caroline Hax rather than Arlington Social Services.

        Jim, sorry I did not pay attention to the attribution for your post — I did take it as you talking, not Chris Braunlich — thus my response to Larry.

  9. In a world where some folks are saying the cost of special instruction for economically disadvantaged kids is ” too expensive” ..

    did you catch this:

    ” …This process is expensive. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year.”

Leave a Reply