The move away from traditional detention settings for juvenile offenders, and instead toward more rehabilitative ones, has been a process long in the making in juvenile justice departments across the United States. Many states have made great strides in relying less on incarceration and more on community-based alternative services for their young offenders. Often, the biggest roadblock that states run into in attempting to make these types of changes to their systems is figuring out exactly how to fund them. This very question is the subject of a recently released report by researchers at the Urban Institute, who suggest that communities simply need to get creative when it comes to funding juvenile justice programs. According to Samantha Harvell, a principal policy associate at the institute, “It’s time to shift the conversation to a solutions-based approach.”
The report, titled “Promoting a New Direction for Youth Justice: Strategies to Fund a Community-Based Continuum of Care and Opportunity,” was researched and written in conjunction with the Youth First Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes closing youth prisons in favor of community-based services. The core of the report recommends that advocacy groups and justice systems foster relationships with their local policymakers as well as voters, learn the language of budgeting requests, and encourage local governments to implement alternative funding options in order to further promote community-based rehabilitation programs over incarceration.
A Consistent Funding Stream
As youth incarceration rates have dropped across the nation, so too have the associated costs that states incur. The trick, according to Harvell, is encouraging states to preserve these savings for future youth programming rather than using it to shore up the often significant gaps in their yearly budgets. Ensuring that the funding from closed juvenile detention centers is earmarked for continuing juvenile care is the first and most critical place that the report recommends finding funding for juvenile justice and community-based programs.
In addition, the report also cites the actual physical location of defunct juvenile detention centers as being possible sources of income for programming. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, the report cites a closed youth detention facility in becoming a new source of funding for juvenile justice programs. The land the facility was on is owned by the Texas-based nonprofit Lena Pope, who had no plans for the land after the facility’s closure until a local developer approached them with an offer. Now, the nonprofit has a 60-year lease on the land with the developer, who is building a shopping center on it, and profits about $1 million a year through the deal. That money is already being used to provide education and counseling services to juveniles. “It’s a strategy that creates a consistent funding stream moving forward,” Harvell said.
Creating New Sources to Fund Juvenile Justice Programs
Traditionally, juvenile justice systems’ funding is entirely dependent upon what the state or government can allocate based on available funds from various taxes. According to the report, there are many more ways in which state governments can find ways to fund alternative programming, many of which are innovative in and of themselves, and include utilizing existing funding more efficiently as well as leveraging new taxes and implementing participatory budgeting. To be able to implement these types of changes, “It’s incredibly important to have legislative champions,” said Carmen Daugherty, policy director at Youth First Initiative.
With the recent popularity of recreational and medicinal cannabis legalization, the report suggests that states considering such measures should also consider adding a tax to cannabis sales that exclusively funds juvenile justice programming. Another suggestion is to tap in to Medicaid funding, as many justice-involved youth come from either families with Medicaid coverage, or are a part of the state’s child welfare system. As these children are entitled to these benefits by law, the report suggests allocating those funds for their care via alternative programming.
In Onondaga County, N.Y., reform via the simplification of the state’s child and family services departments resulted in a more balanced budget, as 10 different departments were pulled into just one. Now, this department oversees child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, school-based initiatives, and a youth bureau, which allowed more flexibility in the use of funding in order to better serve juveniles. “In one agency they were able to think creatively,” Harvell said.
Counties in both California and Florida have including enacting local taxes to fund their youth programming. In some areas, participatory budgeting has helped encourage community involvement in funding alternative youth programming. In Boston, the mayor created a youth organization called Youth Lead the Change, which is responsible for deciding how to spend $1 million of the city’s budget each year. The same idea has since been implemented in Seattle, along with a few smaller cities.
“Money needs to go back into investing in the community service supports,” said Daugherty, who believes in the “continuum of care” approach suggested by the report. She believes that offering alternative programming such as recreational facilities and mentoring, emergency intervention options, therapy, and substance abuse treatment, will be the only course to eliminate juvenile imprisonment. Often, states have cited budgetary restrictions as reason to not make such resources available, and Daugherty and Harvell believe it is time to show states that they have options to make the change. “Operating youth prisons sucks up the majority of [juvenile justice] funding,” Daugherty said. “We want to bring those millions of dollars back to their communities.”
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