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Crime Doesn’t Pay: Cost-Effectiveness in the US Juvenile Justice System

September 19, 2015
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. 2.2 million people, or 25% of all prisoners worldwide, are in the nation’s criminal justice system. That’s an absurd amount for the ‘land of the free’ – especially as the country accounts for only 5% of the world’s total population. [1] There are high economic and social costs associated with these trends. In 2010 the total expenditures at all levels (federal, state, and local) were greater than $80 billion, a 350% increase since 1980 in real value.[2] If this is expanded to include other costs such as policing, legal, and judicial services, the financial impact rises to more than $260 billion annually.”[3]

Author: Megan Nibley, MSSP’16

Even as these numbers have decreased over the last two decades, the prison population rate is so high that it is greater than that of the top 35 European countries combined, at 710 inmates per every 100,000 U.S. residents.[4]

Number of Youth in Confinement

The United States maintains this lead in youth incarceration rates as well, with 70,792 confined youth or a prison population rate of 225 percent.[5] This number has fallen steadily since the mid-1990s, but a greater proportion of youth continue to be detained than any other developed country.[6] This is hardly surprising considering the United States was the only developed country where children could be sentenced to the death penalty until 2005,[7];remains the only one that sentences juveniles to life without parole[8].

The goal of the juvenile justice system should, ideally, be a reduction in recidivism and crime. However, the current structure is inadequate in addressing the myriad issues that create and reinforce barriers to success. Confinement alone does little to counteract or deter violence in schools and communities, contributing to high recidivism and dropout rates. These are correlated with low graduation rates and adult incarceration. Further, they have disproportionate affects on students of color, disability, and low socioeconomic status.[9]

Federal appropriations for delinquency prevention programs have decreased continuously over the last decade, down by 54% between FY02 ($546.9 million) and FY15 ($251.5 million)[10]. Concurrently, policing, prosecution and incarceration spending has increased by over 60%.[11] The statutes and culture of juvenile offenses vary state to state, on matters from the oldest age for juvenile court to how money is used, and for what. A major study of state expenditures found that the average costs of the most expensive option for a young person was $407.58 per day, $36,682 per three months, $73,364 per six months, and $148,767 per year.[12]

Pennsylvania[13] Daily Inmate Population: 48,543 Taxpayer Cost of Prisons: $2,055,269 Average Ann...


Daily Inmate Population: 48,543

Taxpayer Cost of Prisons: $2,055,269

Average Annual Cost per Inmate: $42,339

Punitive policies are also far more costly than evidence-based alternatives. It costs an average of $241 a day ($88,000 a year) to incarcerate a youth; community programs for court involved youth cost as little as $11 a day.[14] The latter reduces recidivism (repetition of criminal behavior) by an average of 55%, compared to 22% in the former.[15] 75% of youth are held for nonviolent offenses,[16] an expensive and unnecessary response as restrictive supervision levels have been shown to exacerbate rearrest rates for lower and medium risk offenders. Alternatives centered on youth development, family support, and community integration – those that focus on the roots of the behavior rather than treating youth as the problem – yields the highest reduction benefits. These are often far less expensive and allow intensive services to be focused on the treatment of high-risk youth.

Annual Cost Of Juvenile Incarceration vs Other Youth Investments

In a longitudinal study of youth convicted of at least one serious violent crime, property offense, or drug offense, it was found that the rate of later arrest was not reduced by periods of incarceration exceeding three months. [17] Community-based supervision and aftercare services following residential placement were more likely to result in youth attending school and prevent subsequent involvement with the juvenile justice system; contact with these transitional support services before release and extended availability yielded even greater outcomes.

In addition to the upfront fiscal burden; there are additional charges born by the individuals, families, and society from the consequences of these ineffectual policies, such as:

  • Fewer high school graduates (confinement is correlated with a 10-20% reduction in likelihood of graduation[18]
  • Lost federal, state, and local tax revenue (-$2-4 billion)
  • Higher recidivism rates, including cost to future crime victims (up to $7 billion cost)
  • Lost lifelong earnings for former offenders (-$4-8 billion; workers earn an average of 40% less annually post-incarceration[19]
  • Higher social support cost (such as Medicare and Medicaid (+$0.86-1.5 billion)[20]

Former prisoners encounter legal discrimination in employment and housing, lack the right to vote, are denied educational opportunity, and public benefits such as food stamps.[21] It is easy to imagine why recidivism occurs to such a staggering degree: the system sets people up to fail. Children born into certain social groups or zip codes in the United States are too often denied the resources that would allow them to make optimal choices - essentially forcing them on a path to incarceration.

There is no one risk factor that predicts whether a youth will end up in confinement; many social issues intersect in creating the conditions that put youth in jeopardy and keep them in this cycle. These range from those that dominate our narrative about ‘the system,’ such as community and family structures or physical and emotional health. Income and wealth inequality, adequate health care, access to early childhood education programs, racial and ethnic disparities, nutrition, environmental factors, education and instruction quality, and educational attainment can be promotive factors (at best) or risk factors (at worst).[22]

Youth in Confinement by Race

The rise of zero tolerance discipline in schools,[23] coupled with systemic inequality results in disproportionately harsh disciplinary treatment for students of color: they are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers, while black students are suspended at 2.6 times that rate. Time out of school has significant correlation with school drop out rates, under- and unemployment, and institutionalization.

The disparity in the racial composition of the incarcerated population is one of the most readily apparent examples of this. Certainly, no demographic is unrepresented in the juvenile justice system. However, African-American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than their white peers, and Latino and American Indian youth are nearly three times more likely to be confined despite constituting a significantly smaller proportion of the total population.[24]

It bears emphasis that personal responsibility remains important in analyzing criminal justice, and that there is a need for governing laws in order to maintain any society. Nonetheless, this is not sound policy, socially or fiscally.

A one-size-fits-all model clearly does not work in reforming the system. Investment in supports is needed before youth have contact with the justice system, as well as improvements at all levels if they do. These funds need to be used based on what works, not by what history dictates.

  [1]Bureau of Justice Statistics, Annual Survey of Jails, and National Prisoner Statistics Program, 2000, 2010, and 2013.

  [2]Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration (Washington, D.C., 2014),

  [3]Boser, Return on educational investment: 2014. Center for American Progress.

  [4]The Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts. 2010.



  [8]Snyder, H., and Mulako-Wantota, J. Arrest data analysis. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2013.

  [9]M., Sladky, A., and Kang, W, Easy access to juvenile court statistics: 1985-2012. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

  [10]Act4JJ, Juvenile justice federal funding chart. Coalition for Juvenile Justice. 2015.

  [11]Melissa Kearney and Benjamin Harris, “Ten Facts About Crime and Incarceration in the United States” (Washington: The Hamilton Project, 2014).

  [12]Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock

  [13]Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock

  [14]Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock


  [16]The Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids.

  [17]Mulvey. Highlights from Pathways to Desistance: A Longitudinal Study of Serious Adolescent Offenders. OJJDP Juvenile Justice Fact Sheet. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2011.

  [18]Melissa Kearney and Benjamin Harris, “Ten Facts About Crime and Incarceration in the United States”

  [19]Ram Subramanian et al. Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jail in America. New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015.


  [21]Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press: 2010).

  [22]The Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs.

  [23]Teske & Huff, The court’s role in dismantling the school-to-Prison pipeline. Juvenile and Family Justice Today. 2011.

  [24]The Sentencing Project, “Trends in U.S. Corrections.” 2013.

Images 1, 4: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids.

Image 2: Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock

Image 3: Melissa Kearney and Benjamin Harris, “Ten Facts About Crime and Incarceration in the United States.”

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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