Lindsey Pointer is a PhD Candidate in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington and is a past recipient of the Rotary Global Grant Scholarship. She works as a restorative justice facilitator, trainer and researcher.
The rationale used for incarceration is often that by putting someone behind bars, we will keep that person from committing further offences and therefore ensure the safety of the wider community. Sometimes this is done as a response to violent offenses, but many people are incarcerated for nonviolent offences, especially drug-related charges. Additionally, many young people are locked up for many years, even far into their adult lives, despite studies that have shown that most people age out of crime. This is similar in some respects to the idea of preemptive war. The community fears that committing one crime (even if it was not a violent crime or a crime committed by a teenager) may indicate that a person is likely to cause additional harm to others in the future, so we lock them up to avoid that chance.
However, this preemptive severe punishment comes with a cost.
Looking specifically at the case of incarcerated youth, most states spend more than $100,000 per year on a single young person’s confinement (Justice Policy Institute). On top of those direct costs of incarceration, there is a loss of future earnings for confined youth, which translates into a loss of future government tax revenue. Additionally, incarcerated youth are more likely to later rely on Medicaid and other social services. Once incarcerated young people also have a very high rate of recidivism, meaning that taxpayers will likely continue to pay for their confinement for a large portion of the rest of their lives.
So what are the offenses pushing us to confine these youth at great public cost? Over 60 percent of youth are confined for nonviolent offenses (Coalition of Juvenile Justice). The majority of youth being put behind bars are not being put there because they pose a violent treat to community safety. More often, these are nonviolent offenses, often tied to needs arising from poverty, substance abuse, or untreated mental illness. 60-70% of youth in confinement have a mental disorder and 25-50 percent have a significant substance abuse disorder often co-occurring with mental disorders (Coalition of Juvenile Justice). Choosing to incarcerate these young people impacts their ability to live at home, build a positive social support network, attend and succeed in school, and work productively in the community.
Instead, needlessly confining young people results in harm to youth, fails to protect public safety and wastes taxpayer money.
So if incarceration isn’t the answer, what does work to improve youth outcomes?
According to the Council of State Governments, the most effective programs are ones that identify and address the key needs that drive youth’s delinquent behaviors. This involves getting to know the individual and identifying the specific needs that he or she is attempting to meet through crime, including assessing mental health and substance use treatment needs. Additionally, the most effective programs match youth to services based on their strengths. An emphasis on assets and strengths promotes resiliency and encourages pro-social behavior. Along with this emphasis on strengths, is an integration of individual support networks into the process. Outcomes are improved when the family is engaged.
Programs and practices such as Restorative Justice are arising to fill this gap, responding to the needs of the individual and emphasizing strengths and support networks. These program are both more effective in terms of reducing recidivism, responding to victim needs, and increasing community safety, and also place far less of a burden of cost on the community.
We are faced with the choice to transition to a system that is more effective and less costly, a system that has already been tried and proved at large scales by countries such as New Zealand.