Costs of Confinement

Recently, the Coalition of Juvenile Justice (CJJ) hosted a webinar on the Real Costs of Confinement. There is a lot of conversation about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the justice system in relation to reducing rates of recidivism and contributing to community safety. What is more rarely discussed (with precise numbers and impacts) is what this ineffective system is costing us. Having a realistic picture of these costs (both tangible and intangible), adds another element of pressure to the need for immediate and drastic change in our justice system. Therefore, I would like to share some of what I learned from the CJJ webinar here.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, most states spend more than $100,000 per year on a single young person’s confinement. For comparison, the prestigious college I attended costs roughly $50,000 per year per student for tuition and fees. When I first heard this statistic, my mind immediately went to the immense value this education had for me. I thought of how the small class sizes, engaged professors, and my intellectually stimulating peers awoke in me new confidence and curiosity, how I apply what I learned there to the work I do every day. The majority of my education was funded by scholarships, including funding from the national and state government. It makes my skin crawl to think that the tax money being spent to put one youth behind bars could instead be used to send two young people to a college of the caliber I was fortunate enough to attend.

On top of those direct costs of incarceration, there is a loss of future earnings for confined youth, which translates into a loss of future government tax revenue. Additionally, incarcerated youth are more likely to later rely on Medicaid and other social services. Once incarcerated young people also have a very high rate of recidivism, meaning that taxpayers will likely continue to pay for their confinement for a large portion of the rest of their lives.

So what are the offenses pushing us to confine these youth at great public cost? Over 60 percent of youth are confined for nonviolent offenses. The majority of youth being put behind bars are not being put there because they pose a violent treat to community safety. More often, these are nonviolent offenses, often tied to needs arising from poverty, substance abuse, or untreated mental illness. 60-70% of youth in confinement have a mental disorder and 25-50 percent have a significant substance abuse disorder often co-occurring with mental disorders. Choosing to incarcerate these young people impacts their ability to live at home, build a positive social support network, attend and succeed in school, and work productively in the community.

Instead, needlessly confining young people results in harm to youth, fails to protect public safety and wastes taxpayer money.

So if incarceration isn’t the answer, what does work to improve youth outcomes?

According to the Council of State Governments, the most effective programs are ones that identify and address the key needs that drive youth’s delinquent behaviors. This involves getting to know the individual and identifying the specific needs that he or she is attempting to meet through crime, including assessing mental health and substance use treatment needs. Additionally, the most effective programs match youth to services based on their strengths. An emphasis on assets and strengths promotes resiliency and encourages pro-social behavior. Along with this emphasis on strengths, is an integration of individual support networks into the process. Outcomes are improved when the family is engaged.

Programs and practices such as Restorative Justice are arising to fill this gap, responding to the needs of the individual and emphasizing strengths and support networks. These program are both more effective in terms of reducing recidivism, responding to victim needs, and increasing community safety, and also place far less of a burden of cost on the community.

We are faced with the choice to transition to a system that is more effective and less costly, a system that has already been tried and proved at large scales by countries such as New Zealand. This should be a very easy choice.

Advertisements

A Conversation with Public Safety Chief (Chief of Police) Mike Butler

 Q: Why did you decide to integrate restorative justice into the Police Department?

A: Having worked in the criminal justice system for as long as I have and seeing the results over a period of time and its effectiveness or lack thereof and believing there are other forces out there that could be brought to bear that could have more impact on keeping our communities safe. There had to be a better way of figuring this out. It all started with “this isn’t working, something is amiss.” We came to work and lived with a level of ineffectiveness and no one was asking questions. We just keep doing what we’re doing, going down a path of insanity.

Q: How did you begin the process of integrating a Restorative Justice program?

A: I began talking to elected officials, officers, and school officials, writing briefings, and having conversations with everyone. Then eventually I had to pull the trigger and say we’re going to try something new. You know you’re going to get push back when you introduce something different from what people have been trained and taught to do.

It was conviction, finding champions, conversations, beginning the development of awareness and a different level of consciousness of what’s possible. Slowly, it became more institutionalized. It wasn’t something I could force. It’s one conversation, one gathering, and one person at a time. No magic bullet out there, it’s just the work and staying with it.

Q: What advice would you give to Restorative Justice Organizations hoping to partner with police in their communities?

A: I would bring in other police departments who have gone down that path. Find a department where they’ve had success and say these folks are police folks they know how to talk to other police folks. We have gone to police departments at their request to say here is why we did it, and here are the results. If you know anyone with leverage who could champion this, have this conversation with them. Everyone wants results and data, have it at the ready.

It comes down to conversations, relationships, conviction, bringing in people from other police departments. There’s not a lot of magic. It’s just a matter of conviction, staying with it, going at it again and again. You can say that with just about any process or change.

There are police departments on bended knee right now trying to figure out how to make different relationships with their community. More than ever, they are wanting to figure out new ways of doing business. Will we just be the hammer that comes down on people? Or can we be something else in our community? That question looms big now more than ever. The ground is fertile, the time is ripe, the window of opportunity is big now, so jump on it. Now is time to bring all these things into play.

Now is the time to bring all these things into play.

In two weeks, a co-worker and I are traveling to Florida to present at the National Association of Community Restorative Justice Conference. We are presenting on three topic, including Partnering with Police in restorative justice organizations. Today, we met with the Chief of Police to interview him about his decision to partner the Police Department with restorative justice twenty years ago. He said a lot of great things, but one quote struck me as especially powerful and timely. He shared this insight directly after telling us about a Chief of Police conference he attended recently where he spoke about restorative justice and raised the question of whether police officers could be ambassadors of kindness and compassion in their communities.

“There are police departments on bended knee right now trying to figure out how to make different relationships with their community. More than ever, they are wanting to figure out new ways of doing business. Will we just be the hammer that comes down on people? Or can we be something else in our community? That question looms big now more than ever. The ground is fertile, the time is ripe, the window of opportunity is big now, so jump on it. Now is the time to bring all these things into play.”