Alternatives to Juvenile Incarceration Sought

By: - October 17, 2011 12:00 am

Juvenile incarceration is expensive, harmful to kids and ineffective. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which argues that major changes are needed in the juvenile justice system to make it more cost effective and reduce recidivism. According to the report, states spend an average of $88,000 per year per youth incarcerated, and about 70 percent of them reoffend within three years of their release.

While juvenile incarceration costs continue to rise, prison closures often meet resistance from the communities that rely on them for jobs. Last week, angry citizens showed up at a hearing of the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability to protest the possible closure of a juvenile facility in the town of Murphysboro. They said closing the facility would cripple the town’s struggling economy.

“There just currently are not enough jobs to go around,” Christopher S. Grode, the superintendent of the Murphysboro Community Unit school district, said in his submitted testimony to the commission. “Southern Illinois needs these jobs.”

The Illinois Youth Center at Murphysboro is one of seven state facilities Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has marked for closure, arguing that the legislature has not appropriated enough money to keep these facilities open. According to the state’s auditor general, it cost $115,686 per year to incarcerate one youth in the Murphysboro center during fiscal year 2008. There are at least 50 youth currently in the facility.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois and an advocate for less juvenile incarceration, says these concerns about jobs are real and important but should not stand in the way of change. “People are upset because it’s their jobs. Murphysboro has pretty high unemployment, and it’s very understandable,” Maki says. The concern over jobs, he says, “shouldn’t stop reform, but it should spur us all to think about how we can find employment for people that isn’t on the backs of kids that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

Unions in New York showed similar resistance to juvenile facility closings earlier this year, but by September, the state had already closed four locations and portions of four others. “An incarceration program is not an employment program,” Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo argued back in January. “Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs.” Cuomo set aside $50 million in economic development aid to help communities affected by the prison closings.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile detention alternative initiative, which works with states to reduce reliance on juvenile lockup, recommends that before states begin closing facilities, they decide how to redeploy employees that might be affected by closings. Bart Lubow, director of the foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group, says the initiative has reduced the youth prison population by more than 1,000 beds, and that the reduction has never created a major economic problem for a region. Lubow says that employees can be retrained to work with kids in communities, and taxpayer dollars can be saved by reinvesting in local treatment.

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