Juvenile justice reforms would save money and spare nonviolent youths

This op-ed was originally published at Rare on August 12, 2015.

In the 2013 documentary Kids for Cash, director Robert May told the stories of several young offenders from Pennsylvania whose lives were up-ended by the dysfunctional juvenile-justice system.

Presented in the young offenders’ own words, their stories are compelling.

They will also make your blood boil.

Judges, seemingly without much thought of the lifelong consequences, unnecessarily exposed these children to the system as adolescents, putting them at risk of being trapped in an endless cycle of crime.

Among the young offenders profiled in the documentary is Justin Bodnar. In December 2001, when he was 12-years-old, Bodnar got into trouble when he hurled obscenities at the mother of another student.

Despite his colorful language, which his mother tried hard to curb before this particular incident, Bodnar is an intelligent and talented young man. His mother consented to having him arrested in hopes that it would put a stop to his frequent profane speech and prevent any future embarrassing incidents.

To her surprise, Justin was charged with making “terroristic threats” and sentenced to a juvenile-detention facility. Over the next seven years, Bodnar would spend time inside the juvenile system, where he tried marijuana and heroin for the first time.

These are experiences he might have avoided had he not been exposed to the system at such an early age.

“[What] you see first is fences — 20-foot tall fences with rows of razor wire, like I’m a convicted criminal, like I’m a murderer. And that’s what it feels like. You feel like I’m now one of those people you see in the movies,” Bodnar said, recalling his first trip to a juvenile-detention facility.

“I woke up in a nice bed with my family, and I went to sleep with cockroaches and criminals. Every time you went into a room, you had to do a roach look, like to make sure there are no roaches anywhere. It’s dirty, and there are stains on the walls.”

Bodnar, who is struggling to put his life on the right track, and many of the other young people in the documentary were “status offenders” — adolescents charged with a crime that would not otherwise be a crime if they were adults.

Too often, judges, in closed-door hearings deemed necessary to protect the young offender, take tough stances in a purported attempt to scare them straight.

The good news is that the number of crimes committed by juveniles is at record lows. In 2012, about 1.3 million young people were arrested, down 40 percent from 2006.

For those who do make mistakes, however, any exposure to the justice system, including arrest, can actually increase the likelihood of a young person becoming a repeat offender. Residential placement is ineffective, and out-of-home placement is expensive and fails to produce better outcomes than alternatives.

The question policymakers should be asking is this: How can they effectively treat and rehabilitate young offenders and put them on a path to productive lives while cutting costs?

The answer can be found in different states.

Functional Family Therapy, an evidence-based, family-centered intervention program, has proven to be an effective alternative to placement in juvenile-detention facilities. At a cost of up to $4,000 per youth, this approach can reduce the chance of a young person from becoming a repeat offender by one-third.

States that have used evidence-based approaches have seen their juvenile-detention populations fall. Texas and Ohio, for instance, experienced declines of 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively, since 2006. Both states saw repeat-offender rates fall even while commitments to state facilities dwindled.

The savings from this innovative approach to juvenile justice allow states to focus on rehabilitation for higher-risk young people who remain in detention facilities.

Congress can also step up to protect young people who are unnecessarily caught up in the juvenile-justice system. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have already introduced legislation to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 with a series of long-overdue reforms, including phasing out remaining situations in which a status offender can be detained.

Other efforts, such the Redeem Act, which would allow a young person to have their record expunged if they stay out of trouble, is an idea that lawmakers should explore as they seek to give offenders the opportunity to prosper in their adult lives.

The “scared straight” approach may’ve been attractive at one time, but it has proven to be a costly failure and one that deprives young people of opportunity, because it exposes them to the justice system before they’ve fully mentally developed.

With the approach to corrections changing for nonviolent offenders, there is a tremendous opportunity to put young lives on the right path, ending the cycle of crime before it starts.