Criminal Justice

Juvenile Justice: An Often Overlooked Opportunity for Saving Taxpayer Dollars and Protecting Communities

Corrections policy has long been a topic of hot debate in state legislatures. Less attention is devoted to juvenile justice. Usually a smaller portion of state budgets, and with issues and principles at play that are not widely appreciated, legislators are often hesitant to delve into the sensitive topic. But surprisingly, those states and legislatures which have taken the time to institute particular reforms in juvenile justice have achieved impressive results.

Juvenile justice presents a uniquely exciting opportunity because some of the reforms that produce the best outcomes for communities and juveniles also happen to cost far less for taxpayers. The result can be extensive budget streamlining, all while strengthening and protecting communities.

The principal way to achieve this result is through a reformation of the traditional juvenile justice system. Traditionally, counties and local governments are responsible for delinquency proceedings and juvenile probation, while the state picked up the responsibility—and the tab—for locking up juvenile offenders. This can produce inefficiencies, as the officials responsible for prosecuting a juvenile may not be sensitive to the costs, potential for abuse, and obstacles to successful reentry into society that result from the placement of that juvenile in state-run secure facilities or residential programs.

By rectifying this fiscal imbalance and empowering communities to keep more youths and dollars closer to home, policymakers can bring juvenile justice policy into alignment with research suggesting that most youths are more effectively rehabilitated closer to their families, churches, and other community resources. This system is called “Performance Incentive Funding,” and involves a system where juvenile justice expenditures follow the placement of the child.

Policy Solutions

This year, ALEC unanimously passed model policy for states to implement performance incentive funding. Through that legislation, states can implement a system for tracking the number of juveniles the county avoids sending to the state for secure confinement, as well as the state expenditures saved as a result. A portion of those savings are then returned to the counties for community-based juvenile justice programs.

Further, the model policy requires the use of evidence-based practices and provides that the funds counties receive can be used for various effective forms of intervention, including restitution to victims, family-based programs, and substance abuse treatment. Also, the model legislation provides that counties must, at the very least, not increase the rate at which juvenile probationers commit new crimes. This assures that there is an incentive not just to divert youths from state lockups, but also to maintain or enhance public safety.

This model policy includes the integral components of a successful performance incentive funding system, and provides policymakers with the tools to make truly transformative changes to their juvenile justice systems. And the benefits—budget streamlining and safer communities—pay dividends for years to come.

Tackling juvenile justice reform can be a daunting task. But armed with this model legislation for performance incentive funding, as well as the research and evidence from states who have successfully implemented this model, policymakers can deliver positive results for communities, juveniles, and state budgets.

States that have begun implementing some version of incentive funding have enjoyed positive outcomes across the board. For example, as a part of a package of reforms, Texas initiated a system of performance incentive funding, providing grants to counties who committed fewer juveniles to state care, opting rather to treat the delinquent juvenile closer to home in county facilities. As a result, Texas was able to close three state facilities for juveniles, saving $110 million dollars in the process. Further, since implementing this model, key indicators of juvenile crime in Texas have declined.

In the 1990s, Ohio adopted such a funding policy, giving money to counties that treat juveniles who would otherwise be incarcerated and deducting funds for low-risk juveniles who are sent to state facilities. The result was dramatically reduced recidivism rates—22 percent for moderate risk youth placed through RECLAIM, compared with a 54 percent rate for such offenders in state lockups —and a savings of between $11 and $45 per dollar spent due to the reduced need for more costly state youth lockups.

Performance incentive funding systems can achieve a more successful and lower cost juvenile justice system, and replicate the successes seen in Texas and Ohio.


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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