A prescription for juvenile justice

Instead of focusing on the failings of our youth detention centers, invest in proven preventive measures

December 16, 2010

I believe that juvenile crime in Baltimore is less the failing of individuals and more the fault of flawed public policy. Children succeed when given opportunities for healthy development and avoid serious delinquent behaviors when services are available at the first sign of trouble. When opportunity and services are absent, as they are for many Baltimore city youth, growing up can be hard. Faced with barren environments — with few places to play, living in households on the verge of crisis, too many young people adopt dysfunctional behaviors for mere survival.

Instead of investing to change these unmanageable circumstances, public dollars are in effect, held until after young people get in trouble, and then hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to fix or punish them — most of whom, in Baltimore City, are African American. Why is this? Are we angry at black children? Would it be a waste of money to invest in their well-being from the start? Or have centuries of discriminatory spending policies created an entrenched, racially biased juvenile justice structure — that sucks up the lion's share of public dollars in the name of public safety?

I think it's the latter, and each and every one of us holds a responsibility for its persistence. I do not believe that our elected officials intend to do harm to the city's young African-Americans, nor do I believe that the majority of residents simply do not care.

Moreover, I don't believe it is the failing of Donald DeVore, outgoing secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS.) No single person can run an under-resourced, over-subscribed system and correct the life-damaging consequences of bad public policy. It's just not possible, and it is immoral to keep trying — particularly when state and city elected officials absolutely know that there are less expensive and far more effective ways to support our youth. In fact, under Secretary DeVore's leadership, evidence-based practices have increased, and so too has public safety — however funding for such remains a small fraction of the DJS budget.

Our primary problem is the disproportionately high amount of money spent on expensive programs that don't work (detention, jail, out-of-home confinement) which, in effect, rob our public budgets of the dollars to invest in basic opportunities and services for all children and youth.

The city and state can fix this problem with targeted investments that produce positive outcomes for our youth and simultaneously leverage savings from avoided confinements.

Last year, the state spent $43 million to take custody of approximately 500 Maryland youth, at $86,000 per kid, with a dismal 25 percent success rate in preventing further offenses by those served. In fact, research shows that time spent in custody harms most young people more than it helps. So we should and can stop putting so many young people into state custody.

There are alternatives for the same population that cost far less. For example, $10,000 funds intensive therapy for a youth and his or her family, producing, on average, a 75 percent success rate and fortifying parents and kids with new ways to deal with problems and conflicts. When we compare these two costs and success rates, it is clear to see how we can reverse our bad public spending policies. We can spend less for better outcomes on a wide range of programs run by non-profit, for-profit and public organizations.

With targeted investments in programs that keep youth from entering the juvenile justice system and rigorous accountability for their success, we can document the savings that accrue from the reduction in institutional care and use the savings to increase effective interventions and opportunities. As opportunities increase, fewer young people get in trouble — and for those that do, DJS can respond effectively to a reduced population with clearly identified needs.

It is a simple leveraged investment approach. Here's a summary of how it works:

• For youth found guilty of a non-violent offense: Enroll youth in multi-systemic therapy (or one of the other effective alternatives at a cost of $10,000 per youth) instead of commitment to an out-of-home facility. Use the resulting savings of ($76,000 per success) to increase the number of slots in such programs and fund positive activities — such as jobs and community service.

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