State Budget Crises Should Lead to Reform

By Zach Schalk
January 14, 2011 11:59 AM


With many states facing budget crises in the coming years, the cries for spending cuts and program reform are louder than ever.   In most cases, budget cuts equate to lost services, making them popular in rhetoric and unpopular in practice.  However, one exception that has gained notice by politicians and the public alike has been the corrections sector—in particular juvenile corrections.

Across the country, states are finding out that prison reform and slashed budgets can actually go hand in hand.  In California, newly elected Governor Jerry Brown is proposing changes that would take juveniles from state to county run facilities, saving the state billions while also allowing for greater community control over troubled youth.

On the Atlantic Coast, similar calls for local control are also gaining traction.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has recently called for a similar restructuring of the state’s juvenile justice system to allow for greater local autonomy, under the premise that localities are better suited to meet the needs of kids who have traditionally been shipped up state to large facilities.  Some in Baltimore are calling for savings to be found by encouraging prevention over punishment:

Last year, the state spent $43 million to take custody of approximately 500 Maryland youth, at $86,000 per kid, with a dismal 25 percent success rate in preventing further offenses by those served. In fact, research shows that time spent in custody harms most young people more than it helps. So we should and can stop putting so many young people into state custody.

There are alternatives for the same population that cost far less. For example, $10,000 funds intensive therapy for a youth and his or her family, producing, on average, a 75 percent success rate and fortifying parents and kids with new ways to deal with problems and conflicts. When we compare these two costs and success rates, it is clear to see how we can reverse our bad public spending policies. We can spend less for better outcomes on a wide range of programs run by non-profit, for-profit and public organizations.

It’s refreshing to see politicians finally listening to the experts who have repeatedly called for changes in the system in the past, though it’s also regrettable that a budget crisis was required in order for these positive steps to be taken.  And, to be sure, the fight for reform is far from over.  Many opponents to reform remain entrenched in the status quo—from large correction officers unions to those who misguidedly think that heavy-handed punishment is the only remedy to juvenile crime.  But, for the moment at least, it appears that the stars are finally aligned for meaningful and needed reform to our nation’s juvenile justice system.

Posted on January 14, 2011 and filed under The Issues.