Criminal Justice

Exorbitant Costs Exposed in Los Angeles Juvenile Justice System

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the high annual expenditures associated with housing juvenile offenders in Los Angeles.  According to a recent county audit, it costs over $230,000 each year to house one juvenile offender, considerably more than the cost in similar jurisdictions. The fact it is much more costly to house a juvenile offender in one jurisdiction over another raises questions regarding how funds are being allocated.  This discrepancy implies careless spending of taxpayer dollars in a state pegged with the sixth worst tax burden in the nation.

According to FBI Statistics, juvenile crime rates reached a high in 1996 at about 2.9 million arrests per year and have now been cut in half to a reported 1.3 million arrests in 2012.  The amount of juvenile arrests has decreased despite the approximate 15-percent growth in the U.S. youth population from 1990-2010, per the United States Census Bureau.  The myriad reasons for the decline in juvenile crime are hard to pinpoint, but according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Justice report, one key strategy involves relevant agencies “striving to implement more developmentally based and trauma-informed legislation, policies, and practices to keep juveniles out of the juvenile justice system in the first place.” As states continue to pass reforms that reduce the juvenile crime rate, facilities can be consolidated in places like Los Angeles in order to save taxpayer dollars.

California Governor Jerry Brown did not speak about criminal justice reform in his State of the State address on January 21.  However, a ballot initiative related to public safety and rehabilitation has been introduced, and a vote will be held in November of this year.  Among other provisions, the act “requires judges, rather than prosecutors, to decide whether minors as young as 14-years-old should be tried as adults and sent to adult prison facilities.”  This would ultimately make it more difficult to charge a youth offender in the same fashion as an adult offender.  ALEC supports initiatives in which 17-year-olds are presumptively treated as juveniles in the criminal justice system.  However, ALEC does not endorse changes to laws allowing prosecutors the discretion to treat juveniles as adults for certain enumerated crimes of violence.   This support for presumptively treating 17-year-olds as juveniles stems from evidence proving youth are developmentally different from adults and are much more likely to be successfully rehabilitated if placed in the juvenile system. Successful rehabilitation of juvenile offenders is the ultimate goal of the juvenile system.  When that goal is met, recidivism rates fall, the offender becomes a productive member of society and taxpayer dollars are saved.

One stakeholder not benefitting from the lower crime rate is the juvenile justice system itself.  This may seem counterintuitive, but lower numbers of offenders translate to downsizing and furloughs for the institutions housing these offenders – unwanted consequences in any industry.  The juvenile justice system in Los Angeles is a clear case of bureaucratic inertia: the tendency of bureaucratic institutions to perpetuate themselves regardless of the results they are producing.  The sluggish response to adjust aspects of the system that are failing is not surprising because of this bureaucratic propensity.  California taxpayers should demand more efficiency and commonsense reforms in the juvenile justice realm, and a lower tax burden while they are at it.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reform. For over a decade, the ALEC task force on criminal justice has brought state legislators and stakeholders together for the purpose of driving sound criminal justice policies. ALEC members focus on new and innovative state…

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