Juvenile justice reform can lessen budget shortfall

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Louisiana’s budget situation worsens every day. Far too often, the newspaper arrives bearing news of yet another hole that needs to be plugged – $341 million, $245 million, $319 million – and of the steadily worsening long-term shortfall, which will be around $3 billion over the next two years.

During the current legislative session, lawmakers will have to make tough decisions about – and deep cuts to – state services in all areas of government.

An easy decision would be to fund juvenile justice reform. Lawmakers have the opportunity to better allocate critical state dollars, provide more and better services for less money and positively affect youth in our state. It’s time to fund the right services in the right way for our youth.

“Evidence Based Practices for Juvenile Justice Reform in Louisiana,” a recent paper on the potential fiscal costs of different types of juvenile justice services, reveals how Louisiana can spend less money to serve more youth by investing in community based programs that are “evidence-based” – proven by research to be the most effective at reducing juvenile violence and crime.

The cost of incarcerating one youth for one year is around $50,000, although the Office of Juvenile Justice’s budget for maximum secure care shows the state is actually spending closer to $100,000 per child annually. Meanwhile, the cost to treat that same youth in one of these evidence based programs – which is proven to work – is between $1,300 and $5,000 annually.

Even with the most conservative estimate, for every child currently housed at a facility such as Swanson in Monroe, we could be serving ten youth in a community-based court-supervised program.

Perhaps what is even more significant than the cost savings of these community programs is that they work better than incarceration. Better outcomes associated with these programs include reduced rates of re-arrest, improved family functioning and school performance, decreased use of drugs and symptoms of mental illness, and more.

Juvenile justice can be done better with fewer dollars. It’s rare to find a solution that provides better outcomes with less funding.

This session, Louisiana must take a bold step and act wisely with limited taxpayer dollars. The state must invest in evidence-based community programs and stop funding programs that fail to demonstrate results.

Louisiana’s budget crisis is similar to those in other states. We don’t have to wait for them to come up with the solution. We can lead the nation in juvenile justice by investing smartly to achieve better outcomes. That’s what I want to read when I open the newspaper.

– Donald Cravins, Jr. is a former member of the Louisiana State Senate, House of Representatives and the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission. He is a current board member of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a non-profit organization that works for effective juvenile justice reform. For a full copy of the policy paper referenced, visit http://publichealth.lsuhsc.edu/lamc/.