A Shocking Cost Some Pay More for than Others

The average annual cost to confine one youth: $149,000
The annual cost to send a kid to Harvard: $ 59,000

This simple comparison reveals the staggering cost of locking up youth. This cost is increasingly unpalatable as more evidence shows that confinement does not discourage future crime and may even encourage it. But, this accounts only for the cost of facilities for the time a youth is locked up.

What are the long-term costs of taking kids away from their families, schools and communities, and placing them in detention centers? And who is shouldering those costs?

A new report from the Justice Policy Institute, “Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration,” estimates these indirect and long-term costs and recognizes that the greatest burden falls most heavily on communities of color. The majority of youth involved in the justice system do not finish high school, thus severely limiting their employment opportunities and earning ability. Not only does this result in a loss of potential tax revenue, but governments also incur the cost of supporting many of these youth as adults through social services. Additionally, the report looks at the cost to the system of youth who are sexually assaulted while confined, as well as the cost of future crimes committed by youth who were not rehabilitated by the system and may even have left worse off than when they entered.

Accounting for all these measurements, the report estimates that the conservative cost for inappropriately and excessively confining youth is an estimated $8 billion dollars annually. On the high range of the spectrum, the United States loses an estimated $21 billion dollars annually. This loss of earning potential and threat of future violence largely impacts families and communities color whose youth are disproportionately arrested and placed out of home. Despite large reductions in confinement over the past decade, youth of color continue to be confined at rates much higher than their White counterparts, and these disparities are growing.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute’s “Unbalanced Juvenile Justice” data map provides an interactive format for understanding these disparities by state.

As we continue to better understand the long-term costs of confinement, it is imperative that we recognize how the disparities of our system impact youth, their families and communities long after they have been released.