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.

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