Can States Reduce the High Cost of Youth Incarceration?

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<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >Can States Reduce the High Cost of Youth Incarceration?</span>

In 2014, The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) first analyzed the cost of juvenile incarceration to find more than 33 states plus the District of Columbia report over $100,000 per incarcerated youth in annual spending. Six years later, in 2020, youth arrests significantly declined yet spending increased – the Justice Policy Institute now finds that 40 states and Washington, D.C. pay out a minimum of $100,000 annually per incarcerated child, with some states reporting over $500,000 each year.  

As youth justice reform efforts have effectively decreased the number of arrests leading to confinement, local, state, and federal agencies have an opportunity to save taxpayer money by investing more heavily in community-based programs aimed at rehabilitation rather than incarceration. 

Youth Incarceration Cost Factors 

Although the number of incarcerated youths has declined, with 84% of detention centers and 74% of long-term housing centers under capacity, operational facilities must still pay their staff and maintain the building and grounds. 

“The fixed costs of staffing and operating a facility are not reduced dollar-for-dollar by the average daily population,” The JPI reports. Furthermore, fewer children in confinement does not necessarily reduce the department’s budget, which increases the cost-per-child spending.  

For example, California closed one of its four state-operated facilities due to legislative adjustments that changed sentencing outcomes. However, budgeting for the remaining three facilities has not decreased accordingly, which spikes the average spending per incarcerated youth. 

Harmful practices within facilities prove to be another factor behind high youth incarceration costs. For example, solitary confinement puts teens at high risk of developing psychological concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Not only is it costly for state organizations to pay for services to mitigate these psychological effects, but such mistreatment often results in expensive court settlements. 

Institutionalizing young people does not only cost states and taxpayers money but there are significant costs to communities that must be considered as well. A revised study by Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle, which is considered by the JIP to be the “most statistically sound and comprehensive analysis” of youth incarceration and recidivism, found that living in a juvenile justice institution increases the probability of a teen becoming arrested as an adult by 22-26%. Additionally, incarceration “significantly” increases a child’s likelihood of developing an emotional or behavioral disorder. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that a falling number of incarcerated youth gives “states an opportunity to close youth prisons and invest the savings into community-based approaches that nurture children and young adults while building stronger communities.” 

Save Taxpayer Money with Community-Based Programs 

According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, reducing institutionalization is a tenant of community-based programming. The NJJN urges that incarceration should be “reserved only for those who pose such a serious threat that no other solution would protect public safety.” 

Furthermore, the NJJN states that most children involved with the justice system can be served, protected, and rehabilitated within their communities and at home with their families. 

Community-based programs provide at-risk youth and families with counseling, mental health services, substance use treatment, job training, educational assistance, and other services aimed at reducing justice-system involvement. According to the NJJN, such programs have positive results for children – most teens remain arrest-free during participation and the majority live at home 6-12 months after completion.  

Utilizing programs based in a teen’s community is also beneficial from a fiscal standpoint. According to a JPI report, while youth incarceration costs an average of $588 per day per child, community-based programs can cost as little as $75 per day. 

There are a variety of community-based programs that can save taxpayer money while redirecting children away from out-of-home placement. Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is one. 

Functional Family Therapy: A Cost-Saving Solution

FFT provides therapeutic services to parents, caregivers, and children in the context of their homes and communities. The approach is based on the premise that families and communities shape each other, and they should therefore be included in interventions that target youth at risk of incarceration. 

Functional Family Therapy offers a range of services including individual and family counseling, case management, coaching, mentoring, advocacy services, and outreach education about positive parenting practices.  

The main goal of FFT is two-fold: 

  1. To support youth in identifying feelings and coping with stress, anger, and anxiety through healthy outlets, such as physical activity, sports, or art therapy. 
  2. Teach parents how to manage their emotions and behaviors so they can effectively parent their children, resolve conflicts, and handle discipline issues in a healthy, safe, and productive way.

FFT shows positive effects on family and child outcomes including positive peer influence, improved parent behaviors, less deviant behavior in teens, reduced substance use, improved school attendance, and reduced re-arrest rates.

This innovative approach to therapy as an alternative to incarceration allows many at-risk teens to become productive members of society and avoid justice system involvement. Functional Family Therapy supports juveniles and family members learn to communicate with one another and find alternative responses to harmful ways of thinking.  

With many positive outcomes, including reduced recidivism rates, FFT effectively decreases the need for youth incarceration and related spending. 

 Interested in bringing FFT to your community? Download How to Become a Functional Family Therapy (FFT) Provider: A Comprehensive Guide. 

FFT LLC brings Functional Family Therapy to over 40,000 families a year across the globe that are at risk of involvement in the justice and child welfare systems and/or gangs. To maintain positive outcomes, FFT LLC provides clinical oversight and ongoing research to ensure that all FFT providers adhere to the evidence-based practice standards. Contact us for more information about our evidence-based youth and family counseling services.