From the day tens of thousands of children are born, multiple risk factors converge to suck children into the prison pipeline instead of towards educational advancement and career success. These include: pervasive poverty, inadequate health and mental health care, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, chronic abuse and neglect, rampant substance abuse and overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems.A Houston Chronicle editorial featuring CDF's message to the Legislature said investments in youth are a "sure thing" compared to the risky market, while pouring money into prisons, at this point, is like sinking your retirement savings into Wall Street's financial bubble after its already burst.
The cost implications of such an epidemic are serious. An ounce of prevention is far more cost-effective than crisis care when children get sick or into trouble, drop out of school or suffer family breakdown.
Children do not come in pieces, and our solutions to dismantling the pipeline must be comprehensive. More investment in the early years of an at-risk child’s life could provide all taxpayers enormous savings.
- The average cost of a mentoring program is $1,000 a year.
- The annual per child cost of a high quality after-school program is $2,700.
- The cost of providing a year of employment training for unemployed youths is $3,448.
- The average annual per child cost of Head Start is $7,326.
- The cost for a year of public education in Texas is $7,246 per pupil.
- The cost of incarcerating a child in the Texas Youth Commission is $67,890 a year.
The Chron singled out for particular praise CDF's suggestion to shift Texas youth prisons toward smaller, rehab oriented facilities modeled after those in Missouri, arguing that the investment would more than pay off in increased tax revenue and reduced crime down the line:
Once youths enter the pipeline, the cost to taxpayers shoots higher than most individual incomes.
It costs $67,890, according to the Children's Defense Fund, to incarcerate one child in the Texas Youth Commission. For one year. Now consider that a black male born in 2001 has a one in three chance of ending up in the correctional system. A Hispanic boy born that year has a one in six chance, and an Anglo boy a one in 17 chance.
Public costs for these pipeline travelers extend far beyond one year, of course. Even out of prison, they are more likely to earn less, more likely to rely on benefits, use costly emergency room care and need public housing.
Unfortunately, the Sunset Advisory Commission failed to endorse shifting Texas youth prisons toward a "Missouri model" approach in its staff report, but if money is available, there's still a decent chance the 81st Texas Legislature may decide to go that route. It's certainly still under discussion though legislators are fearful of the cost. By CDF's logic, perhaps they should be fearful of the costs if they fail to invest.
One of the most exciting [evidence based approaches] is the Missouri Juvenile Justice model. Rejecting the conventional, punitive juvenile justice approach, the state of Missouri offers youngsters counseling, family and community support, and education.
As a result, only one out of 10 released young people return to the prison system. The recidivism rate in the Texas pipeline is 50 percent.
CDF also singles out spending on youth mental health services as an important preventive that reduces criminality, as well as literacy programs and Head Start initiatives, along with the much more ambitious and nebulous goal of "ending child poverty." FWIW, that last item sounds a bit too pie-in-the-sky for my tastes. After all, even Christ acknowledged that the poor will "always be with us," while the rest of CDF's suggestions come off as much more concrete and suitable for implementation.
Definitely check out CDF's "Message to the 81st Texas Legislature," IMO they're hitting most of the important high points regarding how the Lege should be approaching juvenile justice.