what do we stand for?

There’s a bill on the table in the Wisconsin legislature that would allow 17 year olds with nonviolent charges to be treated in the juvenile system, rather than the adult system. (Juvenile Justice Information Exchange) Wisconsin is one of 11 states that treats 17 year olds as adults; New York is one of just two (with North Carolina) that treats 16 year olds as adults. In New York, The Honorable Michael Corriero, through the organization he founded – the New York Center for Juvenile Justice  – is leading a similar reform movement to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

The primary resistance against this obviously smart and humane thing to do isn’t debate about the well-established fact that 17 year olds are not adults and should receive developmentally appropriate treatment. It’s about the cost it will add to the state’s budget. (In Wisconsin, “as much as $10 million a year if about 2,000 17-year-old offenders were treated in the juvenile system rather than sentenced as adults.”) This fear of an immediate expense increase in state budgets is so short sighted, misguided and illogical it begs just a little perspective shift – for what are the costs we incur by throwing adolescents into our massive and ineffective adult penal system? Here are just a few to put on the scale:

• States currently spend over $52 billion annually on what we still ironically refer to as “corrections”. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

• Over 50% of released inmates return to prison within 3 years. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

• Justice system involvement is incredibly disruptive for youths’ education, many of whom are already far behind.

• 75% of prison inmates nationally do not have high school diplomas (Bureau of Justice Statistics) and only 9% with low literacy skills receive assistance. In other words, by putting adolescents into adult jails and prisons we almost guarantee their educational and economic demise.

• Research suggests that it costs society $390,000 to $580,000 in lost productivity for each student who drops out of high school. (Cohen, M.A. & Piquero, A.R. (2009). New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High Risk Youth. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25:25–49.)

This last statistic is derived from an economic argument – and yet still grossly under-estimates the myriad societal and state costs to putting adolescents into our adult justice system. The stigma of a criminal record which we sentence adolescents to by treating them as adults, permanently disenfranchises them. There’s no effective way to capture the costs of perpetual “dependence” on tax-payer supported systems that we also thus sentence them to (Medicaid, public assistance, unemployment, disability….) And we certainly cannot quantify the human costs to this backwards approach to societal progression.

Eliminating one line item expense in a budget does not offset the many others that continue to balloon because of its cheaper short-term alternative. Advocating treating adolescents as adolescents in our justice system is not a liberal rant divorced from the “reality” of the numbers. It is in fact a much more pragmatic as well as humane approach to solving our worst societal epidemic since slavery.

Resistance to pragmatism often reflects deep ideological or emotional conflict. For in the case of where and how we spend money to grow our economy, we continue to pursue short-term solutions that are not only economically short-sighted, but morally-challenged. Knowing the multiple failures of our “corrections” system, and unwilling to spend $10 million on the young people who are a state’s future, we allow billions to circulate in this increasingly privatized justice system (clear oxymoron that it is). For as CNBC illuminated in its piece “Billions Behind Bars” “America's prison system employs more than three-quarters-of-a-million workers -- more than the auto industry. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics shows there are 26 new jobs created for every 100 inmates. Many small towns are trying to get in on the boom.” (CNBC)

Funny that we should be employing Moral Reconation Therapy (see recent post, percolating) as a tactic to “correct” the youth we incarcerate, when our collective morals are failing us epically.

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Executive Director

Executive Director