One way to lessen the chance that troubled young people grow up to be full-fledged criminals is to send them to community-based counseling and probation programs instead of to detention centers where they are often traumatized and inducted into a life of crime. The community-based programs are less expensive than detention and more effective when it comes to cutting recidivism. But states and localities are often hampered by policies that provide perverse financial incentives for sending young people to the lockup.
That’s the case in New York City, which is struggling to remake its juvenile justice system. Detaining one youth for a year costs city taxpayers $200,000 — many times what it costs to care for troubled children in community-based programs. Unfortunately, the system encourages officials to choose detention for juveniles. The state reimburses the city 50 percent of the cost of pretrial detention, but pays nothing for community-based alternative programs that can make all the difference in getting troubled young people back on track.
Another serious problem, according to a recent study by the city’s Independent Budget Office, is that the juvenile courts close at 5 p.m. and aren’t open on weekends. Police officers who arrest young people at those times usually have no option but to send them directly to detention until the courts open. In some cases, the process can take several days. That’s outrageous — especially since statistics show that once young people do make it to court, two-thirds are defined as low-risk suspects and are released to their parents pending trial. It would never be tolerated in the adult system where the law requires that suspects be swiftly arraigned.
Thanks to innovative policies, New York City has begun to reduce the number of low-level young offenders who are sent to state-run detention facilities. Many are now diverted to community-based programs where they can receive mental health and counseling services. That’s a good thing, since more than 80 percent of young men who are sentenced to detention facilities end up arrested again within three years.