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Report: Youth Prisons Too Costly, Ineffective

Hundreds of youth detention centers in the United States have closed in the past 20 years, with states moving toward alternative rehabilitation efforts. A coalition that includes prosecutors and corrections officials says that trend should continue. (Adobe Stock)
Hundreds of youth detention centers in the United States have closed in the past 20 years, with states moving toward alternative rehabilitation efforts. A coalition that includes prosecutors and corrections officials says that trend should continue. (Adobe Stock)
August 5, 2020

BALTIMORE -- Dozens of prosecutors and corrections officials are calling for youth prisons across the country to close permanently. Their message coincides with a new report on the operating costs of these facilities, and they point to efforts in Maryland as progress.

With fewer young people entering the juvenile-justice system, the coalition said, it's fair to question whether taxpayers should continue funding youth prisons. Vincent Schiraldi, co-chair of the group Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, said policymakers need to be mindful of the teens who still are locked up.

"A lot of places are getting down to the point where they have very few kids," he said, "and if they could close their youth prisons and capture the money and put it into community programs, they could have much better outcomes."

According to the report from the Justice Policy Institute, 40 states spend an average of more than $200,000 a year on each young person incarcerated, costs that have risen more than 40% in the last few years. Maryland spends more than $400,000 per youth annually. The coalition praised the state for plans to close two juvenile-detention centers, but said youth prisons should be included.

Marc Schindler, executive director of the institute, said mounting research shows correctional centers for post-sentencing confinement are harmful to the futures of young people who end up there. He said teens who commit a serious offense but have no other history of delinquent behavior aren't likely to do it again -- and even for those who commit serious offenses, he said, a long sentence isn't always the best approach.

"We have to look beyond the offense," he said, "and look whether they are truly a risk to public safety."

The coalition said state and local governments need to keep developing community support efforts. According to the Justice Department, the number of young people in confinement in the United States has fallen by 60% since 2000. Supporters of closing youth prisons have said that trend isn't expected to slow down.

The "Sticker Shock 2020" youth prison cost report is online at justicepolicy.org, and incarceration data is at prisonpolicy.org.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - MD