Acton Institute Powerblog

The Costs of Jailing Teens

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juvenile_500x279In early June 2016, Matthew Bergman, 15, allegedly admitted to police that he killed his aunt and stabbed his mother in Davidson County, Tennessee near Nashville. When teens commit crimes in the suburbs or in urban areas, experts are ambivalent about what to with them because of the long-term consequences of youth incarceration. Low income communities get hit the hardest.

Since the 1980s juvenile incarceration rates have increased steadily creating a phenomenon often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” There are many reasons for the increased numbers of incarcerated youths and there are often implications for juvenile delinquents as they become adults. It is no secret that those imprisoned in their teens have a higher likelihood of spending time in prison at some later point in their lives. The Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University published an article titled “The Devastating, Long-Lasting Costs of Juvenile Incarceration” examined the long-lasting effects of juvenile imprisonment and the problems surrounding the current system.

The article found that the, “school-to-prison pipeline,” or imprisonment of students for minor offenses, often targeted minority students — especially Black and Latino youths. The increased policing of schools is partially to blame with a 30 percent increase in school resource officers over the past 20 years, making school arrests more and more common. While the 2010 data the article uses seems to point towards a decline in juvenile and school arrests in the coming years, the racial gap is widening. In 2010, 127 out of every 100,000 White youths were incarcerated, compared to 605 per 100,000 Black youths, making black youths 5 times more likely to be locked up before they were adults. The numbers are just as staggering for Latino and Native American youths: two and three times more likely than White youths to be incarcerated.

The costs of incarceration are immense, and besides the obvious social implications towards the impacted minority populations there is a growing financial problem as well. A 12 month stay in a juvenile detention center costs $88,000 a year, while the average cost to educate the same student for a year in public school is only $10,259. The article puts that number in perspective by naming Harvard’s tuition cost – $59,959 – almost $30,000 less than a year in juvenile detention.

The punishment they receive by way of juvenile detention not only costs taxpayers dearly, but harms their future. Many cannot find jobs or continue their educations with their criminal records. This leads to high recidivism: 70 to 80 percent of them will be rearrested within two or three years of release. Only 12 percent are incarcerated for violent crimes while the majority are punished for minor offenses. As far as social loss goes, the youth lose the opportunities they could have had, and society loses their potential influence, creativity, and other contributions. They gain only the psychological trauma that often accompanies time in detention centers, and some are even sent to adult prisons where they face even greater risk of trauma.

Without ending the school to prison pipeline and the targeting policing at schools, the problem of the overcrowded juvenile detention system continues to feed overcriminalization problem in United States.

The article’s conclusion only partially gets at the problem. While policies towards restorative justice and away from over-policing will help end the pipeline, there is still a danger in over-regulating a solution. Much of the problems have been created by a system already burdened by too much State and Federal control over local schools. If local communities are allowed to deregulate school discipline they could better treat juveniles who are misbehaving. The article is right that prison is not always the best solution for misbehaving youths, but more regulation and policy regarding discipline from the top down is what created the inequalities and problems in the 80’s and 90’s. Giving control over discipline back to local communities, civil society institutions, and parents will yield better results towards creating young men and women who are prepared to have an impact on the outside world instead of spending their teenage years in a cell.

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Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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